The history of hand hygiene – a tribute to Semmelweis

We cannot ignore the fact that Austrian-Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis discovered the importance of hand hygiene in 1858, opening the era of infection control.

Semmelweis demonstrated that puerperal fever (also known as childbed fever) was contagious and that this incidence could drastically be reduced by appropriate hand washing by medical care-givers. He made this discovery in 1847 while working in the Maternity Department of the Vienna Lying-in Hospital. His failure to convince his fellow doctors led to a tragic conclusion, however, he was ultimately vindicated and cleared of blame. While employed as assistant to the professor of the maternity clinic at the Vienna General Hospital in Austria in 1847, Semmelweis introduced hand washing with chlorinated lime solutions for interns who had performed autopsies. This immediately reduced the incidence of fatal puerperal fever from about 10 percent (range 5–30 percent) to about 1–2 percent. At the time, diseases were attributed to many different and unrelated causes. Each case was considered unique, just as a human person is unique. Semmelweis’s hypothesis, that there was only one cause, that all that mattered was cleanliness, was extreme at the time, and was largely ignored, rejected or ridiculed. He was dismissed from the hospital for political reasons and harassed by the medical community in Vienna, being eventually forced to move to Pest.

Semmelweis was outraged by the indifference of the medical profession and began writing open and increasingly angry letters to prominent European obstetricians, at times denouncing them as irresponsible murderers. His contemporaries, including his wife, believed he was losing his mind, and in 1865 he was committed to an asylum. In an ironic twist of fate, he died there of septicaemia only 14 days later, possibly as the result of being severely beaten by guards. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease, offering a theoretical explanation for Semmelweis’s findings. He is considered a pioneer of antiseptic procedures.

No wonder, 150 years later, it was the Semmelweis University (SU) in Budapest that first adapted a digital tool to effectively teach proper hand disinfection technique. The Department of Surgical Research and Techniques at SU began to employ a UV dye-based, computer-imaging empowered device after it received the 1st ICPIC Innovation Academy Award.