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Handwashing: An Idea That Saved Lives And Landed A Doctor In An Institution

Handwashing – a public health staple? Think again. How one doctor risked it all for a healthier generation, #GenH.

Handwashing. It’s taught in homes, schools, and medical facilities around the world. The image of doctors scrubbing their hands before surgery is almost as universal as a healthcare professional wearing a stethoscope. Unfortunately, this life-saving idea was once so controversial it helped land a prominent doctor in a mental asylum.

In 1847, a 29-year old doctor, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, worked as an assistant to the professor of the maternity clinic in Vienna General Hospital in Austria. The maternity clinic was going through a crisis. The women giving birth in the section of the hospital staffed by certified doctors were dying five times more frequently than those giving birth in the ward staffed by midwives (by some estimates nearly a third of the doctors’ patients were dying). The deaths were caused by peurperal fever, more commonly known as childbed fever. The newly hired Semmelweis tackled this problem through observation on the front lines, and experimentation with new ideas for this enduring challenge.


The young doctor analyzed the differences between the doctors’ ward and the midwives’ ward. He tried a variety of tactics, from switching the position of birth, to having the priest giving last rights stop using a bell in case it was “scaring the mothers to death.” None of these measures worked.

After a short break from the ward, Semmelweis returned refreshed and made the observation that would save countless lives: the doctors were performing autopsies and then delivering babies while the midwives were only delivering babies. Semmelweis made a deductive leap and instituted a strict regime of having the doctors wash their hands with a chlorinated lime solution between the two activities. Almost immediately, death rates in the doctors’ maternity ward fell to below 2%.

The discovery of handwashing as a clinical necessity became a cornerstone of Semmelweis’s beliefs. He rallied his colleagues to follow his example in all medical care, not just in maternity care. However, when colleagues objected, he denounced them and reportedly became increasingly frustrated. His behavior seemed so extreme to his peers that he was dismissed from the Vienna General Hospital in 1850. At the same time, unfortunately, his fellow doctors abandoned the handwashing regime.

For the next 15 years until his death at 47 years old, Semmelweis battled unsuccessfully to convince the broader medical community of the wisdom of handwashing.

In 1865, Semmelweis died after being committed to an asylum for increasingly erratic and angry behavior. Since the doctor’s death, his observations and handwashing techniques have been proven right. The rise of germ theory in the latter half of the 19th century, as well as other scientific discoveries showed, Semmelweis was a true medical pioneer. And all he used was the power of observation.

Many lessons can be taken from the life of Ignaz Semmelweis. Most obviously, the importance of handwashing. Despite full scientific acceptance of its value, the practice still faces education and awareness barriers. Organizations like the CDC and Johnson & Johnson are investing time and effort to make sure that handwashing is practiced widely and saves as many live as possible.

The second lesson from Dr. Semmelweis’ life comes from his downfall. A brilliant innovator fought prejudice and disbelief because he railed against the status quo. His battle is so iconic it gave rise to the term “Semmelweis Reflex”, where new ideas are rejected simply because they are new. The lesson here is: to truly change the world, each person must embrace new ideas, explore them, and ensure they are given a full opportunity to improve the world.

To make sure the world does not miss out on another valuable breakthrough, programs like the GenH Challenge are looking to support and accelerate the next big idea that can save and improve lives. Launched by Johnson & Johnson, the GenH Challenge is a global social venture competition harnessing the spark of investment and the power of everyday ideas to change the trajectory of global health. With $1 million USD in cash and other prizes available, find out how your everyday idea, your everyday observation, your everyday action could be the next innovation to help save and improve lives go to https://www.genhchallenge.com to apply.

Johnson & Johnson is proud to open the GenH Challenge submission period – and we need you to share your everyday idea to create the healthiest generation – “GenH.” Apply today at www.genhchallenge.com.

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