Eric Kalo is a PhD researcher in the School of Immunology and Micribiology.
It may have begun with an accident many thousands of years ago. According to ancient Roman legend, rain washed the melted fat from animal sacrifices and wood ashes from Mount Sapo into the Tiber River, where they formed a lather with an astonishing ability to clean skin and clothes. Perhaps the inspiration came from frothy solutions produced by boiling or mashing certain plants. However, it happened! Soap was invented.
People typically think of soap as gentle and soothing, but from the perspective of microorganisms, it is destructive. A drop of soap diluted in water is sufficient to rupture and kill many germs. Hand-washing with soap is one of the cheapest and most valued practices to drastically reduce many preventable diseases, which are killing thousands of people every day.
Hand-washing was championed 130 years ago by Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, an ambitious physician who figured out how to prevent a deadly infection spread by doctors to childbearing women: childbed, or puerperal fever. At the time, microbes were not widely recognised as vectors of disease, and many doctors ridiculed the notion that a lack of personal cleanliness could be responsible for their patients’ deaths.
Ostracised by his colleagues, Semmelweis was eventually committed to an asylum, where he was probably beaten and eventually died of sepsis, a potentially fatal complication of an infection in the bloodstream — basically, the very disease complications that Semmelweis fought so hard to prevent in those puerperal women.
Now, as “wash your hands” is screamed from the mouths of public officials, on billboards and from medical communities around the world, the discovery of Semmelweis’ antiseptics breakthrough has found deeper resonance amid the current global COVID-19 pandemic. His advice has finally been put to good use.
The fact that Semmelweis’ hypothesis regarding his empirical observations of extreme cleanliness were not welcomed by his peers, points to “belief perseverance” by those same peers . Many biographers depict Semmelweis as a tragic hero destroyed by evil gods. However, he fits better into a Sophoclean tragedy, where the hero’s fate is not determined by the gods, but by a tragic flaw in his own character. After having found his mission, Ignaz Semmelweis inevitably headed towards his tragic destiny.
Precisely like this would Sophocles have written the plot — including a choir of dying women in the background: a great hero, a great truth, a great mission, insanity, and Hybris causing ruin. The gods, i.e. the professors of gynaecology, were not guilty, but the hero himself .
The next time you have the impulse to bypass the sink, remember that other people’s lives might be in your hands. The simple act of hand-washing can really make a difference.
 Vipin K., Gupta C., Saini M. et al. Semmelweis Reflex: An Age-Old Prejudice (2020) World Neurosurgery https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wneu.2019.12.012
 Schreiner S., Ignaz Semmelweis: a victim of harassment?. Wien Med Wochenschr (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10354-020-00738-1