Happy Birthday to Hand Hygiene's Dad?

Just before we celebrate the birthday of the U.S., we should stop and think about the 194th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis.

Dr. Semmelweis, father of hand hygiene

Dr. Semmelweis, father of hand hygiene

Born in Hungary on July 1, 1818, Dr, Semmelweis was an assistant in the obstetrics unit of a Vienna hospital when he noticed that women whose babies were delivered by doctors and medical students had a much higher post-delivery mortality rate (13-18%) than women whose deliveries were performed by midwives or midwife trainees (2%).

He hypothesized that the differences were due to doctors and medical students handling corpses before performing deliveries, thus exposing the women to cadaveric material that led to puerperal (childbed) fever.

Despite the fact that his theory contradicted the miasmatic (bad or polluted air) theory of disease that was the prevailing wisdom of the day, Dr. Semmelweis conducted a controlled trial where physicians and students washed their hands with a chloride of lime solution before touching their maternity patients. The resulting 2% mortality rate (equivalent to that of the midwives) proved his point.

He later reduced the mortality rate even further (to 1%) by washing the medical instruments. Thus, he has been known as the “father of hand hygiene” and the “savior of mothers.”

What he offered in medical insight, he unfortunately lacked in change management skills. His understanding of germ theory 20 years before it was acknowledged was prescient, but he was never able to overcome the popular theories and resistance to change.

His handwashing protocols and improvements to healthcare were not implemented until long after his death, when Pasteur and Lister proved germ theory and the value of those protocols.

(Now that I’ve conveyed this story, I’m going to stop typing and go wash my hands. Thanks, Dr. Semmelweis!!)