Weird History

One 19th-Century Doctor's Doomed Crusade To Get His Peers To Wash Their Hands

In the 19th century, physicians argued that Victorian hospitals offered modern, scientific care. But in Vienna, one doctor realized physicians were inadvertently ending the lives of their patients. That's because 19th-century medical practices did not include handwashing.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis spent years trying to convince other doctors to wash their hands after performing post-mortems. He proved that handwashing could save thousands of lives, and yet most doctors ignored his evidence. One stated it simply wasn't possible for doctors to harm their patients, as "a gentleman's hands are clean." Even after Semmelweis provided solid proof that washing hands and sanitized tools decreased the maternal mortality rate, doctors dismissed his findings. 

Just like other horrifying Victorian medical procedures, it's hard to imagine doctors refusing to wash their hands. But Semmelweis put his career on the line to promote handwashing. Here's the story of one doctor's doomed effort to convince his colleagues to practice basic hygiene. (Fortunately, though he lost the battle, he won the war.)