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

By May 13, 2020Articles

By: Sandor Szabo, MD, 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 as 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, after 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 hand washing against the resistance of his senior colleagues in the middle of the 19th century. Namely, he noticed that when young doctors and medical students came after performing an autopsy, with bare hands since no gloves were available at that time, of deceased patients (at that time autopsy was required virtually on all deaths) and assisted in delivering babies, the young mothers often got ‘puerperal sepsis’ and died – but not after Dr. Semmelweis introduced hand washing… His seniors were still not convinced, so they put him in the mental asylum where he died… Nowadays, a medical museum and the medical school in Budapest are named after him.

Fast forward to the COVID-19 pandemic: A recent front-page article on “Unwitting hand in a sanitizer legend” in the Sunday edition of Los Angeles Times described a similar story from the middle of 20th century: Lupe Hernandez, a student nurse in Bakersfield (1966) started to use hand sanitizers because of “lack of soap and hot water”, apparently, by mixing liquid soap with alcohol and other chemicals. The legend has a lot of twists and unproven implications, but it is probably true, i.e., the modern hand sanitizers were invented here in California…

The moral of the stories is that we do not always need modern medicines to control the initial spread of infectious diseases, especially if we have a creative and deductive mind; simple measures such as hand washing will do the first steps – as in COVID-19.

About American University of Health Sciences

AUHS is a Christian based, minority-serving university, which educates students for careers in the healthcare profession. AUHS emphasizes the values of faith in God, love of humankind, and belief that all people have a right to healthcare and deserve a good quality of life based on the wellness of body, mind, and spirit. The university celebrates diversity and reaches out to groups currently underrepresented in healthcare and research. AUHS provides the undergraduate and graduate curriculum, hands-on practical training and supportive environment required to create competent and compassionate healthcare professionals.

American University of Health Sciences is accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), 985 Atlantic Avenue, Suite 100, Alameda, CA 94501, 510.748.9001. WSCUC is a regional accrediting body recognized by the U.S Department of Education (USDOE) and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). wascsenior.org

American University of Health Sciences (AUHS) is a member of the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) [15935 Forest Road, Forest VA 24551; Telephone: (434) 525-9539; e-mail: info@tracs.org], having been awarded Accredited Status as a Category III institution by the TRACS Accreditation Commission on October 24, 2017. This status is effective for a period of up to five years. TRACS is recognized by the United States Department of Education (USDOE), the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE). tracs.org