By: Jennifer C. Sarrett, PhD
The idea behind hand-washing also contradicted the prevailing notion of the causes disease and illness. Although Semmelweis’ discovery was instrumental in the establishment of the germ theory, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th that it really took hold. And so, at the time, Hippocratic and humoral theories of medicine were still in tact. These theories held that illness and disease was the result of an imbalance of the four humors, or secretions: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. The idea that Semmelweis was proposing—that washing hands removed bits of recently touched diseased cadavers and patients, and that these bits could make other people ill—did not match up with this notion.
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice.
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.
As the flu season continues and wraps up, we can thank Dr. Semmelweis for his perseverance in bringing us this homemade vaccine!
1. Gaynes, R. (2011). Germ theory: Medical pioneers in infectious disease. Herndon, VA: ASM Press.