‘To avoid spreading illnesses like influenza and coronavirus, perhaps the least controversial—and most effective—tactic is to wash your hands. The Center for Disease Control advocates a 20-second scrub with soap and water, but this advice wasn’t always considered common sense. In the 19th century, it was scandalous.
In Europe in the 1840s, many new mothers were dying from an ailment known as puerperal fever, or childbed fever. Even under the finest medical care available, women would fall ill and die shortly after giving birth. Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis was intrigued by the problem and sought its origins. (How trillions of microbes affect our everyday life.)
Semmelweis worked in the Vienna General Hospital in Austria, which had two separate maternity wards: one staffed by male doctors and the other by female midwives. He noticed that the mortality rate from the fever was much lower when midwives delivered babies. Women under the care of doctors and medical students were dying at more than twice the rate of the midwives’ patients.
The doctor tested a number of hypotheses for the phenomenon. Semmelweiss investigated whether a woman’s body position during birth had an impact. He studied if the literal embarrassment of being examined by a male doctors was causing the fever. Perhaps, he thought, it was the priests attending to patients dying of the fever that scared the new mothers to death. Semmelweis assessed each factor and then ruled them out.’