‘Doctors Should Wash Their Hands’ Used To Be Controversial

Back in 19th-century Vienna, health official Ignaz Semmelweis came up with the insanely radical, outside-the-box suggestion that doctors should start washing their hands if they handled corpses before they assisted in births. See, nearly 20 percent of births aided by male doctors at the time ended with the baby, the mother, or both dying. In the face of such odds, you’d think “Wash your hands for half a minute. Worst-case scenario, you get clean hands” would be a pretty inoffensive suggestion.

Think again.

Jeno DobyThey refused to listen to this mustache. That’s how stubborn they were.

The scientific community in Vienna was appalled that Semmelweis would even suggest that their hands were ever anything but perfect, and fought back with some pretty insane arguments. For example, Charles Meigs countered Semmelweis’ modest proposal with the logic that since a gentleman’s hands were always clean, a doctor (who is also, by his very nature, a “gentleman”) didn’t need to wash them. Check and mate, buddy.

Semmelweis was removed from his position, and Viennese doctors continued killin’ folks with filthy fingers for 21 more years (during which time 14,518 women and children died from puerperal fever alone), until Louis Pasteur was finally able to convince them germs both existed and did not respect Gentleman Status.

Thereafter, Semmelweis was hailed as a hero and a genius. No wait, he was committed to a mental institution and died of sepsis / syphilis / guard beatings (accounts vary).

Wash your hands. Here’s some soap.

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