Dr Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian born physician who worked in Vienna in the 1840s. He is popularly credited with the discovery of the importance of handwashing, though perhaps it's more accurate to say that he was among the first to appreciate the importance of hand hygiene, rather than handwashing. Harbarth (2000) points out that
. . . many scientists have cited Semmelweis' observations, but, amazingly, grossly misleading impressions still arise about Semmelweis and his original idea of antiseptic hand disinfection, often wrongly cited as “handwashing” in the English-language literature. In fact, Semmelweis never promoted handwashing with soap and water; he was opposed to it, since he wrote: “The cadaveric particles clinging to the hands are not entirely removed by the ordinary method of washing the hands with soap.… For that reason, the hands of the examiner must be cleansed with chlorine, not only after handling cadavers, but likewise after examining patients”Indeed, Semmelweis promoted a policy of using a solution of chlorinated lime (calcium hypochlorite) on the hands between autopsy work and the examination of patients, as opposed to soap.
So, let's celebrate Semmelweis' insights about the importance of the hands in infection prevention rather than associating his name with handwashing alone. He's recently come back on Twitter to help us -- and certainly we need that help. The WHO's World Hand Hygiene Day is May 5. Check out how you can help raise awareness about hand hygiene.
(image source: WHO)