Hand Hygiene

Hand Hygiene: Ignaz Semmelweis – A Man of his TimeIgnaz Semmelweis

In today’s modern medical world, it is required practice for surgeons to thoroughly wash their hands (referred to as scrubbing) before undertaking an operation. Many years ago, in the 1840s, a Hungarian physician by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis was criticized for suggesting that there was a connection between the poor hand hygiene of physicians and maternal deaths and neonatal mortality. Here’s what happened:

In 1846, a young Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis reported for his new job as head of the maternity clinic at the General Hospital in Vienna. Semmelweis became interested in finding out why many new mothers and their babies were dying from puerperal fever or childbed fever. So he embarked on a process of collecting crucial data which would help him find out the possible cause of the deaths.

At the beginning there seemed to be no obvious connection to the deaths, but later on as Semmelweis was examining the body of a colleague who had died, he realized that that colleague had died of childbed fever. This made him realize that the fever didn’t just affect mothers and newborn babies. Semmelweis arrived at the conclusion that the death of his colleague (a pathologist) must have resulted from cadaver contamination when the pathologist was working on an autopsy.

Semmelweis made it a requirement for his medical staff to wash their hands and instruments with a chlorine solution. At the time, he did not know anything about germs, but he knew that the best way to get rid of the smell of the cadaverous particles was to use chlorine. After this directive, the rate of childbed fever fell. However, the other doctors were not happy with Semmelweis. His directive made it look as if they were the ones passing on childbed fever to the mothers in the maternity clinic, an image the doctors were not ready to accept. Consequently, Semmelweis’ directives were resisted and he eventually lost his job. During the following years, Semmelweis suffered from mental illness and was committed to an asylum, where he died at the early age of 47.

Semmelweis was indeed a man of his time, a physician who practiced in an age where physician-scientists were beginning to look at illnesses from an anatomy point of view, unlike previously when illnesses were said to be caused by evil spirits. Today, hand-washing remains one of the most critical tools of public health. Hand hygiene is known to combat the spread of diseases and should always be practiced by food handlers.