Ozark River Manufacturing Co.

The History of Hand Washing

Person putting on medical gloves as demonstration of major step in the history of hand washing.

We can thank much of today’s hand hygiene knowledge to a Hungarian doctor—Ignaz Semmelweis—who discovered the vital connection between hand washing and disease in the mid-1800s. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here though—so let’s back it up a bit and take a deeper look at the history of hand washing.

The origins of hand washing

Hand washing itself isn’t a new practice and its historical roots can be found in religious and cultural traditions across several centuries. In fact, many researchers believe the Jewish population experienced lower mortality rates during the 14th century Black Death due to their religious hand washing rituals.

The actual connection between hand hygiene and cleanliness would not be made for hundreds of years, however. As we dive into the history of hand washing, it’s important to remember that germ theory was non-existent, and up until the mid-1800s, infection was thought to spread through smells—or miasmas—that traveled through the air. The main protection against disease was to close windows and avoid areas where these bad smells permeated.

Health and hand washing come together

This brings us back to our old friend, Ignaz Semmelweis. In 1846, Semmelweis was working in one of two maternity wards at Vienna General Hospital when he made a revolutionary connection. One of the wards was run by midwives and one by doctors and medical students who performed regular autopsies as well as maternal care. With little to no understanding of infection, the doctors moved from autopsies to births regularly.

Semmelweis observed that 16% of women were dying from puerperal (childbed) fever in one ward and only 7% in the other. You can probably guess which ward led to this unfortunate mortality rate. Semmelweis also noticed a lingering odor on the doctors’ hands after returning from an autopsy. It appeared to him that “cadaverous particles” were not only on their hands but required a strong solution to remove.

Around the same time, Jakob Kolletschka, a fellow doctor at Vienna General Hospital, died under curious circumstances. Kolletschka autopsied a woman who had died from puerperal fever—receiving a scalpel injury in the process. Not long after, Kolletschka himself passed away from puerperal fever. Semmelweis put these two observations together and made some of the first-ever conclusions around contagiousness via contact. According to WHO research, 

“…Semmelweis recommended that hands be scrubbed in a chlorinated lime solution before every patient contact and particularly after leaving the autopsy room. Following the implementation of this measure, the mortality rate fell dramatically to 3%…”

Hand washing was working and Semmelweis had the data to prove it.

Decades of resistance and research

After seeing the incredible results of his 1847 hand washing directive at Vienna General Hospital, Semmelweis presented them to the Vienna Medical Society in 1850. His findings were not welcomed as one would expect. National Geographic explains that,

“His theory flew in the face of accepted medical wisdom of the time and was rejected by the medical community, who faulted both his science and his logic. Historians believe they also rejected his theory because it blamed them for their patients’ deaths. Despite reversing the mortality rates in the maternity wards, the Vienna Hospital abandoned mandatory handwashing.” 

It was hard to shake their pre-established beliefs and most wouldn’t come around to the relationship of hygiene and infection until later in the 1800s.

Although Semmelweis set the groundwork—and is widely renowned as “the father of hand washing”—there were several others who helped push it forward.

  • Florence Nightingale—a nurse during the Crimean War—initiated hand hygiene protocols in the 1850’s similar to Semmelweis. Although Nightingale was focused on reducing miasma transmission, her efforts made a massive difference in the infection rates at her military hospital and across the UK.
  • Louis Pasteur had a great deal to do with hand hygiene becoming regular practice. As a chemist, he led the way in microbiology for decades—including his 1860s discovery that heat can kill some pathogens.
  • The tables began to turn even more in 1876 when, “…the German scientist Robert Koch discovered the anthrax bacillus, kicking off the new research field of medical bacteriology.”

As more and more research surfaced, hand hygiene practices grew. The 1800s came to a close and so did the once set-in-stone hand hygiene practices of old—or lack thereof.

When hand washing history becomes modern practice

Even though hand hygiene became regular practice in medical settings throughout the 1900s, the first U.S. national policies weren’t implemented until the 1970s. Once the ball was rolling though, the CDC and HICPAC released several guidelines for preventing nosocomial infections with antimicrobial soap, antiseptics, and finally alcohol-based sanitizers. To this day, new hand washing protocols are released on a regular basis from both government and non-governmental organizations. The COVID-19 pandemic—and its countless hand washing awareness campaigns—is a perfect example of this continued push for hand washing. 

Thanks to Semmelweis and the dozens of other scientists who followed in his footsteps, hand washing is now a regular, valued part of our everyday lives. And also thanks to these ingenious scientists, we have portable sinks as an option for public health promotion and illness prevention. Ozark River Manufacturing has taken the next step in hand washing history and created completely self-contained, no plumbing needed portable sinks that go anywhere hot water hand washing is needed. Their over 25 models of portable sinks are all out-of-the-box ready, meaning all you have to do is fill up your fresh water tank and plug it in. NSF-certified hand washing code compliance has never been so simple or looked so good!

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