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Google honors man who discovered the importance of handwashing

Due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, Google will, on Friday, consider the man who discovered the importance of washing your hands. All over the world tomorrow, an image of the doctor Ignaz Semmelweis will appear above the search window.

Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor, who became head of a maternity hospital in Vienna on March 20, 1847. At the time, one in five women died in childbirth. Doctor Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that this was due to infections. Doctors and nurses took pathogens from deceased mothers and infected the following patients. That could be prevented by simple hand hygiene.

Doctor Ignaz commissioned all doctors and nurses to wash their hands before every treatment. Within a few months, mortality had fallen to a few percents, and in the year following his appointment, there were a few months in which all pregnant women left the hospital alive.

Ignaz Semmelweis washing his hands in chlorinated lime water before operating.
©Bettmann/Corbis/NPR – Ignaz Semmelweis washing his hands in chlorinated lime water before operating.

Contemporaries were initially skeptical about Ignaz Semmelweis’ approach, but in the end, the whole world changed its mind. Even today, hundreds of thousands of hospitalized patients contract infections each year, viruses that can be life-threatening and difficult to treat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hand hygiene is one of the most important ways to prevent these infections.

According to NPR, over the years, Semmelweis has become angry and eventually strange. There has been speculation that he has developed a mental illness caused by syphilis or even Alzheimer’s disease. And in 1865, when he was only 47-years-old, Ignaz Semmelweis was admitted to an asylum.

The sad end of the story is that doctor Ignaz Semmelweis was probably beaten up in the asylum and eventually died of septicemia, a potentially fatal complication of an infection in the bloodstream – in fact, the same disease Semmelweis fought so hard to prevent in women who died of cradle fever.

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