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Keeping Our Hands Clean: How a Doctor in Vienna Revolutionized Disease Control Through Hand-Washing

“Wash your hands!”

Since the earliest days of the COVID-19 outbreak, we’ve been reminded constantly to practice responsible hygiene. If there’s one thing experts can agree on, it’s that simple adjustments to our regular habits, like practicing social distancing, wearing a face mask, and frequently washing our hands throughout the day can save lives.

Reminders to keep our hands clean have become ubiquitous, as we’ve adjusted to life under these circumstances. When soap and other cleaning products began flying off the shelves, distilleries pivoted to producing their own hand sanitizer to keep up with the necessary demand. Hand sanitizing stations have been implemented at grocery stores and other essential businesses. And messaging from public health officials has consistently emphasized the importance of washing our hands. It’s clear that our best defense against the virus is our basic responsibility to one another, and our basic hygiene.

But did you know there was a time when the effectiveness of hand-washing in preventing the spread of illness was actually called into question? As a matter of fact, it was a scientist in Vienna who led the charge for hand hygiene, and who taught us all about the life-saving benefits of keeping them clean.

Some History

In the mid-1800s, Hungarian scientist and physician Ignaz Semmelweis began work at the Vienna General Hospital, in the country’s first obstetrics clinic. During his time at the clinic, he noticed many instances of postpartum infections among mothers who’d recently given birth. Many women who were treated by doctors in the hospital’s maternity ward succumbed to childbed fever. However, Semmelweis noticed that the rate of infection and death from this postpartum fever was drastically lower when the new mothers were treated by midwives who practiced strict hygiene.

Did doctors really not know that hand-washing would decrease the chances of infections? It sounds strange, but it’s true. In fact, despite Semmelweis’ rigorous studies and multiple scientific publications proving his newfound link between hand hygiene and decreased mortality, most of his colleagues refused to believe him.

Semmelwies was rejected by the medical community, who refused to believe his theories. Doctors were offended by his suggestion that they wash their hands to keep their patients safe, and openly mocked the physician’s medical opinions. He was so pilloried by his community, that the phrase “Semmelweis Reflex” was coined to describe the immediate rejection of a scientific fact by someone with no personal understanding of the subject at hand (forgive the pun).

Although Ignaz Semmelweis did not receive recognition while he was still a medical practitioner, his findings eventually revolutionized health care and personal hygiene. The noticeable effectiveness of hand-washing in maternity wards has led Semmelweis to be posthumously referred to as the Saviour of Mothers.

The Tradition Today

As citizens of the world’s culture capital, the Viennese do everything in style — even washing their hands. Luxury boutiques throughout the city provide shoppers with organic care products, artisanal cosmetics, and yes, hand-crafted soaps.

The Wiener Seifenmanufaktur combines traditional soap recipes made from a coconut oil base with old-world craftsmanship techniques to innovate and create a wide range of hand soaps and care products. In their on-site lab, each bar of soap is cut using an old Augustin machine, fashioned by hand, and dried in individual drying stations. It’s just one of many Viennese institutions using traditional methods to create luxurious, and life-saving supplies.

Even if you can’t get your hands on hand-crafted hand soap, now more than ever, it’s imperative to keep them clean. As the Saviour of Mothers insisted, proper hygiene saves lives. Wash your hands frequently, for at least twenty seconds at a time. Stay vigilant, and stay safe!

Photos courtesy of the Vienna Tourist Board


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