The History of Handwashing in Medical Sciences: Relevance to COVID-19

Sandor Szabo, M.D., Ph.D., MPH
Professor, American University of Health Sciences, Signal Hill/Long Beach, CA
Visiting Professor, Semmelweis University Medical School, Budapest, Hungary

We often take for granted that a simple preventive measure such as handwashing has been around for a long time. Unfortunately, that is not the case – since this has been implemented only about 170 years ago, the aftermath was a huge debate and controversy that pushed the inventing physician into an asylum where he died without any recognition.
Today, the acknowledged “inventor” of handwashing is the young Hungarian physician Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis who, while working at a university hospital in Vienna, Austria, introduced handwashing against the resistance of his senior colleagues during the middle of the 19th century. Namely, he noticed that young doctors and medical students arrived after performing an autopsy with bare hands – since no gloves were available at that time – of which deceased patients (at that time, an autopsy was required virtually on all deaths) and assisted in delivering newborn infants, the young mothers often contracted “puerperal sepsis” and died – but not after Dr. Semmelweis introduced handwashing. Nevertheless, his seniors were still not convinced and placed him in a mental asylum where he died. Nowadays, a medical museum and a university medical school in Budapest are named after him.

Let us fast-forward to the COVID-19 pandemic: A recent front-page article titled, “Unwitting hand in a sanitizer legend” in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times described a similar story from the middle of the 20th century. In 1966, a student nurse named Lupe Hernandez from Bakersfield, California began to use hand sanitizers because of the “lack of soap and hot water,” In doing so, Hernandez supposedly developed hand sanitizer by mixing liquid soap with alcohol and other chemicals. This legend has many twists and unproven implications, but it is possibly true, i.e. the modern hand sanitizers were apparently invented here in California.
The moral of these stories is that we do not always need modern medicine to control the initial spread of infectious diseases, especially if one has a creative and deductive mind; simple measures such as handwashing will help in the first steps – as in the situation of COVID-19.

May 4, 2020/ Rev. July 8, 2020

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