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Google Doodle honors handwashing pioneer Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

Animated Doodle demonstrates the proper way to wash your hands to prevent the spread of germs.

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As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, health officials advise that one of the best ways you can protect yourself from getting sick or spreading germs is to wash your hands regularly. This may seem pretty obvious today, but that's not always been the case.

The practice of washing one's hands was first proposed in 1847 by Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a German-Hungarian physician and scientist known as the "savior of mothers." Friday's animated Google Doodle demonstrates the proper way to wash your hands to prevent the spread of disease and also pays tribute to Semmelweis. For it was 173 years ago Friday that he was appointed chief resident in the maternity clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, where he discovered a link between transmitted germs and a high mortality rate in new mothers. 

Semmelweis discovered that an infection known as "childbed fever" that was killing new mothers in maternity wards across Europe was related to infectious material being transmitted on the hands of doctors who had recently performed operations or autopsies.

He observed that the death rate of women from childbed fever in the hospital's first clinic, where students doctors were being trained, was two to three times higher than in the second clinic, where midwives were trained. The two clinics used identical techniques, so the cause was baffling.

The discovery came after the death of a friend who had recently poked himself with a scalpel during a postmortem examination of a woman who had died of puerperal fever, also known as childbed fever. The friend's autopsy showed the same type of infection as puerperal fever, leading Semmelweis to make the connection and order students and doctors to wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime before each examination.

Semmelweis' observations conflicted with prevailing medical and scientific opinions of the time and were roundly rejected. But the results speak for themselves -- before handwashing was instituted in May 1847, the first clinic's mortality rate was 18.3%. By July, the rate had dropped to 1.2% and it was zero the next year.

Semmelweis died in 1865 at the age of 47, just 14 days after being committed to an asylum. There, he suffered a beating by guards that may have caused a gangrenous wound on his hand that caused his death.

The hygienic practices proposed by Semmelweis were validated years later when Louis Pasteur expanded on the germ theory of disease. Today, Semmelweis is considered a pioneer of antiseptic procedures.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak of 2020, there's been a frenzy of people buying hand sanitizer, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, your best bet is to wash your hands often for at least 20 seconds. The CDC offers simple directions for doing it correctly.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.