Who discovered the importance of handwashing?


Remember Ignaz Semmelweis? Of course you don’t. But you’re in his debt nonetheless, because it was Dr. Semmelweis who first demonstrated over a hundred years ago that routine handwashing can prevent the spread of disease.

“Dr. Semmelweis worked in a hospital in Vienna where maternity patients were dying at such an alarming rate that they begged to be sent home,” said Julie Gerberding, M.D., director of CDC’s hospital infections program. “Most of those dying had been treated by student physicians who worked on cadavers during an anatomy class before beginning their rounds in the maternity ward.”

Because the students didn’t wash their hands between touching the dead and the living (hand washing was an unrecognized hygienic practice at the time) pathogenic bacteria from the cadavers regularly were transmitted to the mothers via the student’s hands.

“The result was a death rate five times higher for mothers who delivered in the hospital than for mothers who delivered at home,” said Dr. Gerberding.

“This was the beginning of infection control,” Dr. Gerberding said. “It was really a landmark achievement, not justin healthcare settings, but in public health in general because today the value of hand washing in preventing disease is recognized in the community, in schools, in child care settings, and in eating establishments.”

Center for Disease Control article from March 6, 2000

Contact: 404-639-3286 – CDC, Division of Media Relations

Reprinted with permission from the Center for Disease Control