Our mothers’ advice to wash our hands has taken center stage in a way that we never dreamed – or wished – possible. In this unprecedented time of coronavirus, “wash your hands” is a key piece of advice from health departments across the globe. It is also the reason hand soaps and sanitizers are AWOL on most store shelves.
We’re all washing our hands, over and over, and over again. For at least 20 seconds. We know the importance of removing germs, not touching our faces, being cautious of the people and things with which we come into contact.
But we didn’t always.
The evolution of cleanliness and hand sanitizing is quite storied, beginning around 400 B.C., with various highs and lows throughout history. Quarantine of sick people was the norm in ancient Israel. In the first century, Romans treated wounds with natural antiseptics like vinegar and thyme oil. In ancient Babylon, those who were ill were laid out in the streets so that people could stop by and give them advice.
But as late as the 19th century, hygienic practices in hospital settings were abysmal. Medical students would go from dissecting a cadaver to delivering a baby – with no hand sanitizing or sterilization whatsoever!
Dr. Semmelweis’ “aha moment” came when he made the connection between handling dead and living tissue with no hand sanitizing beforehand. In response, he implemented a hand washing program at the hospital and insisted that anyone in contact with a pregnant woman use a chlorinated solution first.
The good doctor’s discovery saw impressive results: mortality rates went from 18.3 percent in April 1847 to 1.9 percent in August of that year.
However, despite compelling evidence, Dr. Semmelweis’s theory was not well received by his contemporaries. That seems astonishing given what we know today, but at the time, scientific opinion was that most illnesses were caused by an imbalance of the body’s basic humors. Thus, practices like leeching and bloodletting were common.
While Semmelweis spent 14 long years developing and lobbying for his ideas, he didn’t live to see popular acceptance of them. Fortunately for us, other medical and scientific forerunners (like Joseph Lister, Louis Pasteur and Florence Nightingale) came to the same conclusions about hand hygiene and sanitization. Dr. Semmelweis was posthumously regarded as a pioneer in the germ theory of disease.
So, here we are. Inundated by the “infodemic” of 24-hour news coverage of COVID-19, we find ourselves frightened…and confused…and inconvenienced.
As we navigate the ever-changing landscape of our current situation, washing our hands constantly as we go, let us be grateful for the advances made in sanitation and the ability to each do our own part in fighting this virus.
Let us also virtually join hands in love and support of one another. We’re all in this together, and together we’ll get through it.
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