Hand Washing Rejected
By Judy Soborowicz
Prompted by the current outbreak of the day, we are all being reminded of the basic steps to maintain a healthier public space and prevent infection. Fortunately, I am old enough to have a mother who was inspired to be a nurse, and as new graduate was able to care for her aunt who suffered from a Tuberculosis infection. As a result of her education and experience, she was adamant about the need for hand and surface washing, covering of the mouth before a cough or sneeze and not to ever-ever spit on the sidewalk. The fact was, growing up with my mother, it was impossible to not be aware there were viruses and bacteria all around us that could possibly infect us. This is part of the reason for my fascination over the story of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, whom I first learned about at chiropractic college.
Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in the mid 1800’s and was the first of his time to propose a cause as to why women and their newly born might be dying of agonizing and fatal ‘childbed fever.’ Quite against popular thought at the time, Semmelweis hypothesized that there were bits of ‘corpse and smell’ on the physicians’ hands which may be the cause of this fever. He began to encourage his students and colleagues to hand-wash with chlorine. Semmelweis suggested it may not be the best idea to go from an autopsy, the horse and wagon, or any activity of normal life, straight to delivery room without scrubbing hands.
This might seem obvious, but germs at that time were yet to be defined as they are now. Unfortunately for Dr. Semmelweis and his patients, his hypothesis was not accepted and it caused great animosity. Even the suggestion that a physician could be the cause of agonizing deaths was met with serious opposition, and the hand washing idea was rejected. Over time Dr. Semmelweis was shunned by his colleagues. As a result of his frustration, he grew less and less concerned with his personal appearance and more and more concerned with the deaths he could be helping to prevent. Socially and professionally shut out, he was eventually committed to a mental asylum, where he died of a blood infection at age 47. Because Dr. Semmelweis was unable to convince his colleagues in his lifetime, many years passed before hand washing procedures were adopted.
While my account of Dr. Semmelweis is very abbreviated, the concept that really good ideas are not always immediately embraced is not unique. Decisions are made and protocols are defined based on the best information at the time. History has proven repeatedly that the preventative steps we take to maintain brain health, exercise, nutrition, stress management, hygiene, clean water, and plumbing has and does lead to significantly lowered risk of mortality and greater expression of health. Our knowledge of health is evolving, and a collaborative and open view of simple interventions which build human health is beneficial for everyone.