As the coronavirus pandemic continues, people and organizations across the world are sharing important information about how to reduce the chances of getting sick. Google performed their own public service announcement with a Google Doodle on its homepage. The doodle for March 20 shows a cartoon caricature of 19th century physician Ignaz Semmelweis showing users how to properly wash their hands. Of course, in recent days, there has been a push to make sure everyone is informed about the correct hand washing procedure. But who is Ignaz Semmelweis?

Dr. Semmelweis was an early pioneer of medical hygiene, becoming the first person to advocate for washing hands to slow the spread of disease. Semmelweis was born on July 1, 1818 in what is now Budapest, Hungary. The son of successful grocers, Semmelweis went to the University of Vienna in 1837, initially studying law. However, he changed his mind, deciding to pursue medicine instead, earning his degree in 1844. Semmelweis quickly found his footing in the world of medicine, gaining an important position at the Vienna General Hospital, including overseeing two maternity clinics.

Mother’s at the clinics often succumbed to what was called “childbed fever.” Around 10% of the mothers in the first clinic died of the fever, while only about 4% of the mothers in the second clinic did. The only difference in how the clinics were run was that the first was run by doctors, who were often busy with other responsibilities around the hospital, while the second was run by midwives. In 1847, Semmelweis theorized that the doctors may be carrying “cadaverous particles” from room-to-room, and instituted a hand-washing policy.

Although the hand-washing worked, limiting the number of deaths due to childbed fever, many doctors at the time did not believe Semmelweis or that washing hands could prevent the spread of disease. Semmelweis was fired from the Vienna hospital and, years later, institutionalized against his will. Years after his breakthrough, around the time of his death, Semmelweis’s theory that particles could cause diseases was found out to be true, when the idea of germs was discovered.

The CDC recommends washing your hands often, with water and soap, for at least 20 seconds.

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