The History of Handwashing

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Business Hygiene

Hand washing is a vital component of hygiene. Hand washing has been in existence for many years. It has been an essential component of religious and ethnic customs. Religious Handwashing rituals have been around for a very long time in Jewish, Islamic, and other cultures.

The earliest known record of handwashing dates back to 3,500 B.C., where Mesopotamian texts from what is now Iraq refer to the practice as an important means in controlling illness and disease. In fact, the word “hygiene” itself is derived from a Greek term for “cleanliness.” Since then, it has been practiced as an effective way to stop infectious diseases.

Early Discovery of Benefits of Handwashing

The life-saving effects of handwashing were not found until later in time though. The association between handwashing and hygiene was first brought to light by Ignaz Semmelweis, the father of hand hygiene, in 1846; after it came to his concern that there was a high infection rate among women who had given birth recently, coming to be known as “Childbed Fever”. With horrifying symptoms in the 24 hours following the childbirth, he deduced it had to be something to do with doctors performing autopsies and then going in to assist with women who were bearing children. The way he made this deduction was through the observance that one of the doctors performing an autopsy got cut with a scalpel during the dissection of a mother who had died from childbed fever. He presented the same symptoms as those mothers who had died from said childbed fever. Semmelweis coined the term morbid poison and blamed it for the cause of the childbed fever. After some research, he then introduced hand washing with chlorine, reducing the number of deaths among women who were having children.


Acceptance Of Benefits of Handwashing World Wide and Discovery of Germs


In the times before Semmelweis, it was believed that disease was caused by miasma or “horrible smells that traveled in the air”, because the discovery of germs had not been made yet. Even though the infection rate had gone down to 1% following the implementation of Semmelweis’s chlorine hand washing before doing medical procedures, the community pushed back against his idea so much that he ended up losing his job and landing in a psychiatric ward.

The reason that washing your hands is so important is because your skin is a barrier against germs that cause infections. The study of germs was not widely recognized until the german scientist Robert Koch discovered anthrax bacillus and plunged the medical community into the study of bacteriology. At that time it was believed that only doctors needed to wash their hands, but by the 1890s it was finally widely accepted that this was a practice that everyone needed to adhere to.

In Conclusion

The practice of handwashing had a rocky start to say the least. With push back from the community about whether or not it was a necessary practice, to finally being widely accepted as a way to prevent the spread and ingestion of germs into the body, we now practice handwashing as one of the number one ways to prevent the spread of illnesses.

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