When did people start washing their hands?

When hand washing was controversial

Ignaz Semmelweis was born in Buda, Hungary, in 1818. He began his career in 1846 as an assistant at the 1st Maternity Clinic in the Vienna General Hospital. Over 15 percent of women there died of puerperal fever after giving birth to their child. At the 2nd Maternity Clinic, the mortality rate was much lower.

Ignaz Semmelweis soon recognized the reason: At the first clinic, doctors helped with the birth, at the second clinic mainly midwives. The midwives had clean hands - unlike the doctors. The latter often came straight from the dissecting room into the delivery room. The doctors did not disinfect their hands and thus infected the women with cadaveric poison, among other things, explains historian Daniela Angetter from the Austrian Center for Digital Humanities at the Austrian Academy of Sciences: “The big problem was that the doctors first carried out pathological and anatomical studies and then came to the women, attacked them and examined them without washing their hands beforehand. "

Try rabbits

The death of his friend Jakob Kolletschka provided Semmelweis with further evidence of a connection between hygiene and mortality. The pathologist and coroner died of blood poisoning after a student injured his hand during dissection exercises. Semmelweis found out that Kolletschka suffered from the same symptoms as women who had puerperal fever.

Ignaz Semmelweis was also able to demonstrate the transmission path of puerperal fever using animal experiments with rabbits. Semmelweis finally also carried out a scientific investigation in the 1st Maternity Clinic and produced clear results: If hands and devices were disinfected with chlorinated lime, only around 1.3 percent of the mothers died of puerperal fever.

Doctors refuse new knowledge

Actually, that was enough to prove that puerperal fever can be avoided through hygienic measures - such as cleaning the hands with a chlorinated lime solution. Although some of his colleagues supported him from the start, Semmelweis met with fierce resistance from most of his doctrine. This was also due to the fact that the state of knowledge of medicine at the time did not yet allow direct evidence of bacteriological transmission. In addition, the high-ranking physicians did not want to admit that they were to blame for the death of their patients. Washing hands was therefore still considered a superfluous waste of time.

Above all, Ignaz Semelweis ’supervisor, the gynecologist Johann Klein, as well as the ophthalmologist Anton Edler von Rosas, were very hostile to him. Internationally, too, he was seen as a nest polluter for most of his colleagues. One of his greatest opponents was the German pathologist Rudolf Virchow. It was also of little help that Carl von Rokitansky, in his function as President of the Society of Doctors, officially recognized Semmelweis' doctrine in 1850 and agreed that he was right in this heated debate.

Semmelweis broke up due to criticism

Semmelweis broke because his findings met with such strong rejection. He left Vienna bitter, went back to Hungary and worked at the University of Pest as a midwifery teacher and professor for theoretical and practical obstetrics. In 1865 a progressive illness led to his admission to the Lower Austrian state mental asylum in Vienna-Döbling, where he died under circumstances that have not yet been fully clarified.

It was not until 1867 that the surgeon Joseph Lister introduced the disinfection of operating theaters with carbolic. The generation of doctors after Semmelweis then consistently implemented its hygienic measures in childbirth. But even today, the so-called Semmelweis reflex is a reminder of the suffering of innovative pioneers in science. The Semmelweis reflex describes a finding that is rejected by experts because it contradicts common norms.

Hanna Ronzheimer, Ö1 science

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