Home History & Facts The Man Who Discovered Hand Washing to Prevent Spread of Infections

The Man Who Discovered Hand Washing to Prevent Spread of Infections


Hand washing has been accepted widely by many healthcare professionals as an effective way to prevent the spread of infections. You can spread certain “germs” like viruses and bacteria by touching another person or objects. You can also catch germs when you touch contaminated objects or surfaces.

Let’s talk about the Hungarian Physician widely attributed as the first person to discover this mechanism as one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of infections.

Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian physician and scientist, now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures was born on 1st July 1818 in Tabán, a neighborhood of Buda, Hungary, today part of Budapest. He was the fifth child out of ten of the prosperous grocer family of József Semmelweis and Teréz Müller.

He began studying law, at the University of Vienna in the autumn of 1837, but by the following year, for reasons not known, he had switched to medicine. He was awarded his doctor of medicine degree in 1844. Later, after failing to obtain an appointment in a clinic for internal medicine, he decided to specialize in obstetrics.

Described as the “saviour of mothers”, He discovered that the incidence of childbed fever could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. Childbed fever was common in mid-19th-century hospitals and often fatal. Semmelweis proposed the practice of washing hands with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847 while working in Vienna General Hospital’s First Obstetrical Clinic, where doctors’ wards had three times the mortality of midwives’ wards.

On 19th March 1847, Ignaz was appointed Chief Resident in the maternity clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, where he deduced and demonstrated that requiring doctors to disinfect their hands vastly reduced the transmission of disease.

In 1856, his assistant Josef Fleischer reported the successful results of hand washing activities at St. Rochus and Pest maternity institutions in the Viennese Medical Weekly. The editor remarked sarcastically that it was time people stopped being misled about the theory of chlorine washings.

Two years later, Ignaz finally published his own account of his work in an essay entitled “The Etiology of Childbed Fever”. Two years after that, he published a second essay, “The Difference in Opinion between Myself and the English Physicians regarding Childbed Fever”. In 1861, Semmelweis finally published his main work “The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever”.

In his book, Ignaz lamented the slow adoption of his ideas: Despite various publications of results where hand washing reduced mortality to below 1%, His observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community.

He could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings, and some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and mocked him for it.

In 1865, he died at the age of 47. His practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory, and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist’s research, practiced and operated using hygienic methods, with great success.

Hand washing techniques include using an adequate amount of soap, rubbing the hands together to create friction, and rinsing under running water. This prevents many common and life-threatening infections.


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