Why Do We Wash Our Hands?

Posted on October 12, 2018 by Martin Oaks under Community, Hello world, Resources
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Legend has it that Louis XIV of France, who ruled primarily in the 17th century, once had three soap makers guillotined because their product irritated his skin.

Don’t know it that is true or not, but when you work in deathcare, we do appreciate the importance of quality cleaning materials, particularly soap.

At Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory, hand washing is viewed as a most important and necessary activity. Gloves, aprons, all sorts of protective gear are used, but the simple act of washing ones hands properly is as vital to us as it is to those who work in hospitals.

You might be surprised to know that this fundamental concept, even in healthcare, is a relatively recent position.

In the 1840’s, a Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, demonstrated that if a doctor properly washed her/his hands, the number of deaths of women following childbirth could dramatically reduced.

It was not until the 1800’s that physicians routinely scrubbed up before doing surgery.  It wasn’t uncommon for these doctors to be doing all manner of less than sterile activity and then move directly into the operating rooms.

Through vigorous statistical study, Semmelweis proved that hand washing was absolutely necessary — because of his work, he eventually was called “the savior of mothers.”

Fate was not so kind to Semmelweis –at the age of 47, he developed what some now believe was early onset Alzheimer’s and was placed in an insane asylum, where his behavior led attendants to beat him to death.  He had been a patient there for 14 days before this horrific incident.

A few years later, Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory Semmelweis pioneered.

Although the scientific community generally believes that, as a society, we are more conscious today about the importance of hand washing than we have ever been, that doesn’t mean that we are actually putting that knowledge to good use.

And, history clearly shows, personal hygiene has never been a hallmark of the human race.

Soap is thought to have been created in Ancient Babylonia around 2800 BC.  While no one knows for certain, it came about because of clothes washing in rivers — after rains or in certain sections of rivers, clothes came out cleaner. This eventually led to the creation of substances which could purify the body (so you could be as clean as your wardrobe).

One historical fact that is apparently beyond question is that at various times the act of washing was considered dangerous because it opened pores and allowed disease to enter the body.  Hugely wealthy monarchs were said to have paraded around, accompanied by their own less than attractive odor.  One king is thought to have bathed only a handful of times in his entire life.

It has also been hypothesized that plagues which slaughtered countless victims originated from lack of proper cleanliness.

Around the seventh century, soap began to be accepted, first in Spain, Italy and France; but it took many years to pass before bathing began to be common. More time had to go by before healthful benefits were seen to be attached to the use of soap.

Taking showers can be detected as far back as 500 BC in Greece — but they did not become a wide spread phenomenon until this last century.  The “greatest generation” were largely bathers.

We have come a long way in our understanding about hygiene since the days of ancient Greece — but, according to several recent studies, including one cited in Forbes this summer, only three percent of us washes our hands for the requisite twenty seconds under warm water.

We will have more to say about this in future blogs.


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