Friday's Google Doodle Honors Doctor Who Proved Hand Washing Saves Lives

Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, was the first person to demonstrate how washing hands can save lives.
Fabienne Lang
Google Doodle March 20, 2020Google

Today's Google Doodle is remarkably apt given the current global situation. March 20th marks the day that 19th-century Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that washing hands could save lives. 

It may seem a rather obvious part of our daily routine for us in the 21st century, however, it was not commonplace back in 1847.


People did not know bacteria and viruses existed

The word virus is currently being printed on almost all publications and is on the tip of most people's tongues these days. However, back in the 1800s, they were largely unknown, much less feared. Luckily for us, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis came along and discovered that by using soap to wash our hands, we could literally save lives. 

In the 1800s, childbirth was a much more complicated matter than it is now, with many women dying during or soon after childbirth. Many doctors were stumped as to why so many women were dying and named the unknown illness as "childbirth fever."

At the time, Dr. Semmelweis was Chief Resident in the maternity clinic at Vienna General Hospital and stepped in to try and figure out what was going on. What put Semmelweis on the right path was observing that in one ward of the hospital it was mostly doctors who took care of childbirth, while in the other it was mostly midwives. In the doctors' ward around 10% of women died of the "childbirth fever", while only 4% died in the midwives' one. 

Semmelweis realized that the doctors were going from one patient to the next, one surgery to the next, and even sometimes from autopsies directly to childbirth — all without washing their hands in between. In the midwives' ward, they were washing their hands more frequently with a chemical similar to our current day bleach. 

Friday's Google Doodle Honors Doctor Who Proved Hand Washing Saves Lives
Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis' Google Doodle, Source: Google

After then, Semmelweis ordered doctors to wash their hands in between every patient. The difference was stark: in April 1847 the doctors' ward's death rate was 18.7%, and once they implemented hand washing the rate went down to 2.2% by June 1847. 

Unfortunately for Semmelweis, many peers rejected his proposition and mocked him, carrying on with their non-hand-washing ways and compromising the lives of many more people. It wasn't until the 1850s that people started washing their hands properly.

Today, we know without a doubt that bacteria and viruses exist, and now more than ever we need to make sure to wash our hands regularly for at least 20 seconds. Thank you, Dr. Semmelweis.

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