The doctor who invented hand-washing

Monday morning and there’s another sad story: a person who vocally opposed vaccinations for COVID-19 has died from the disease. Before dying, the patient tells loved ones, “Get vaccinated.” I doubt that these stories do much to change the minds of people who are firmly against COVID vaccinations. What does bother me, however, is the justification for resisting masking, lockdowns and vaccines.

I’ll mention just one of those here. It involves a short recap of history: the story of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor (1818-1865). Semmelweis is best known for his investigations into “childbed fever,” also known as puerperal fever. Women faced mortality rates of roughly 10 percent when giving birth in the obstetric clinic in which Semmelweis worked. Some say the number was much higher. After eliminating all sorts of factors, Semmelweis decided that the causes came from septic exposure carried by doctors and interns.

This sounds almost too bizarre for anything but a horror movie, but it went like this: Medical students would be working in the morgue, doing dissections of corpses. Then, without washing up, they would attend women in the maternity ward.

Semmelweis begged, pleaded and finally insisted that doctors use chlorinated water to scrub their hands before passing between the two locations. The mortality rate dropped dramatically. Feisty would not be the word to describe Semmelweis when his practices were derided by the medical establishment. As far as I can tell from the sources I checked, he became fierce, making demands, condemnations and eventually becoming unbalanced. His private life became disjointed; his suffered from social dislocation, strange behaviours and (certainly) some form of emotional or mental illness.

Eventually, he was lured into a situation from which he was taken by force to an asylum and there he died, not having seen the widespread adoption of the steps to thwart disease spread that we now accept as necessary.

Whose hero is he?

What’s the takeaway from this? There are a couple of options.

One: we can look up to Semmelweis as someone who developed the groundwork for understanding that “germs” caused many illnesses, persisting as long as he was able in the fight to get his theories implemented. Dr. Bonnie Henry, Dr. Theresa Tam, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other health officials who prescribe rigid regulations to prevent the spread of COVID may remind us of Semmelweis.

But another view is to see him as one who battles against the authorities and medical establishment. Some who oppose vaccinations, masking and/or lockdowns see Semmelweis as a sort of David fighting the Goliath of “Big Tech, Big Media, Big Government and Big Pharma.” Typical of this view is the Christian Heritage Party (CHP) of Canada, whose website contains the following analysis: “Microorganisms had not yet been discovered but Dr. Semmelweis had instituted a scriptural practice [Num. 19:13] that has since saved countless lives. We all owe him a vote of thanks for speaking up when the majority tried to silence him.”

Although the Christian Heritage Party of Canada is loud and sincere in its opposition to abortion, when it comes to safety precautions to prevent the spread of a deadly disease like COVID, it is strangely conflicted. Some members of the CHP march in so-called freedom rallies and oppose measures to stop the spread of COVID, or even deny its existence. I would love to hear the Christian Heritage Party switch its emphasis on human freedom of choice to one that shouts loud and clear that they put love of neighbour above personal freedom. And, as important as Semmelweis proved it is, that goes beyond hand-washing.


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