Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis wasn't just the father of hand washing, but a man whose ideas pre-dated the science to support them.

In the mid-19th century, Semmelweis, an obstetrician, was deeply disturbed and puzzled by the high rates of puerperal fever and maternal death at one of Vienna’s two maternity clinics. One of the clinics also conducted autopsies, the other did not. Semmelwies had his epiphany after a colleague was accidently stuck by a scalpel during a post-mortem examination, quickly became ill, and died. Semmelwies postulated that some sort of “mysterious material” from the cadaver had poisoned his colleague; and that the same material was being spread to mothers during obstetric examinations and childbirths.

This was a time before Pasteur’s experiments proved the germ theory of disease. Thus, physicians would be dissecting dead bodies one minute and delivering babies the next, with no antiseptic procedures in between. There was simply no science suggesting that this practice posed a health hazard.

Semmelweis, acting on his hunch, instituted a policy requiring all physicians and nurses to wash their hands with chlorinated lime solution before assisting with births. The maternal mortality rate immediately dropped. Semmelweis made it his life’s work to disseminate his findings and promote hand washing in health care setting across Europe. His ideas largely fell on deaf ears, however, and he was eventually expelled from the medical community. Dejected and frustrated, Semmelwies died in an insane asylum in 1865.

We’ve come a long way since Semmelwies, but there’s still room for improvement when it comes to hand washing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lack of compliance with hand washing recommendations contributes to the 2 million healthcare-associated infections that patients acquire each year in health care settings.

Research conducted by The American Society for Microbiology, which has been studying hand washing behavior since 1996, suggests that the general public still has ‘a ways to go’ as well.

In 2000, 95% of people claimed to regularly wash their hands after using a public restroom, but studies which observed hand washing behavior in public restrooms revealed that the real number was around 67%. In 2010, however, the observed rate increased to 85%—with 93% women and 77% men washing up after using the public loo.

Why bother washing your hands? A 2007 meta-analysis reviewed the results of 30 independent studies on hand washing to assess the extent to which the hygienic practice prevents infectious disease. The authors found that, on average, hand washing was associated with a 31% decrease in gastrointestinal illness and a 21% reduction in respiratory illness.

The meta-analysis did not find, however, any difference in effectiveness of anti-bacterial Vs non-anti-bacterial soap. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has expressed concern that anti-bacterial soaps could contribute to antibiotic resistance, while some feel that their overuse could result in the emergence of “super bugs.” The jury is still out on antibacterial soaps, so in the meantime it seems that plain ole soap and water is the way to go.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides clear and concise information on when and how to wash your hands and some effective alternatives in case soap and water eludes you.

Last week, as part of a campaign to promote hand washing, 740,870 people across Latin America simultaneously washed their hands—a Guinness world record. If Semmelweis were only alive today ...

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