A Social History of Handwashing

Clean Body

If you are like me, your hands are getting a bit chapped from all the washing.  I need to find some lotion.

Over at VOX, Constance Grady interviews historian Peter Ward, author of The Clean Body: A Modern History.

Here is a taste:

Constance Grady

And when did people start to talk about hand-washing specifically?

Peter Ward

Well, Louis washed his hands every day. The idea was there. Our current concern for hand-washing was a product of the germ theory era more than anything else. The idea that people should habitually wash their hands is not an idea that existed before the latter part of the 19th century.

Before then, people had no particular reason to wash their hands unless they were dirty or sticky or something of that sort. There was no epidemiological reason to wash until the germ theory emerged, which was another gradual process. It really didn’t take root fundamentally until the 1880s, with the discoveries of Pasteur.

Constance Grady

There’s this story I read that I’ve always thought might be apocryphal of surgeons refusing to wash their hands during the beginning of the rise of germ theory, because “a gentleman’s hands are always clean,” so on those grounds hand-washing was unnecessary. Is there any truth to that story?

Peter Ward

I’ve not heard that one, so it’s probably too good to be true. But at that point in time, surgeons and all attending physicians didn’t have any clear reason to wash their hands as they moved from one patient to the next. This was an acute problem for physicians and any medical attendants who dealt with women delivering children. One of the leading causes of maternal mortality was childbed fever, which was circulated in maternity hall settings and passed from physicians to patients during the process.

Some of the earliest people who began to think more clearly about this began to think there might be a connection between hand-washing and the passage of disease. One of the first was an American, Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was a Boston poet and physician who wrote an article in the 1840s positing that there might be a connection between medical practitioners moving from patient to patient and women’s post-birth deaths. But there was no theoretical basis for the idea to gain any broad acceptance. It more or less disappeared from sight until the 1880s.

It wasn’t until Pasteur came along that people began to think about these microbiological elements, the unseen life of germs. Pasteur proved it. But even after Pasteur, it took a decade or even more, a generation, for his ideas to be accepted.

Read the entire interview here.