The Centers for Disease Control calls it a “do-it-yourself vaccination”.
The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for handwashing are more effective than the current U.S. recommendation. They are also twice as rigorous. Instead of a 3-step, 35-second process, WHO advocates a 6-step, 42.5-second process.
In the mid-1800s, Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), known as the “savior of mothers”, discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever, also known as “childbed fever”, could be drastically cut using hand washing. After one of the doctor’s colleagues caught the fever and died, Semmelweis understood it was transmissible. He became one of the first medical professionals to insist on mandatory hand washing and sterilization of medical instruments in a chlorine solution.
Despite publications of results where hand washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Semmelweis was not able to offer an acceptable scientific explanation for his findings, and some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and mocked him for it.
In 1865, the outspoken Semmelweis suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an asylum by his colleague. He died a 14 days later, at 47 years old, after being beaten by the guards, from an infected wound on his right hand which had been caused by the beating. Semmelweis’s practice had widespread acceptance years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the theory.
Because it had been proven to drastically reduce the rate of transmission of infection, in the early 20th century public health campaigns encouraging clean hands began to appear around the world.
Hand washing became part of a moral and patriotic directive to serve your country by practicing good hygiene. From Soviet Russian warnings of the 1920s to the idea that clean hands equals good citizenship in the USA, here are some vintage posters that encourage the huddled masses and filthy hordes to get a bar of soap and start washing those hands!