In this day and age we all seem to take hygiene as a given; as a standard (which it should be) and in fact, we can’t imagine a life without clean drinking water, healthcare centres that are sterilised around the clock, expert hygiene services and sewage systems.
But, have you ever imagined what life was like back in the dark ages? The lack of knowledge about cross contamination, bacteria and sterilisation played a large role in human mortality and the rates at which diseases were contracted and spread… Thinking about all of these instances, we have to pay special thanks to the forefathers of hygiene!
What I find very interesting is how hygiene services have evolved from simple cleanliness and how we present ourselves (personal hygiene) to the discovery of the role that good hand washing practices play in prevention of diseases. Of course, one of the most remarkable discoveries in history was that of modern medicine and antibiotics. Below I have highlighted the key moments that have led us to where where are today.
During medieval times, people believed that bathing was a form of debauchery, or an opportunity for the devil to enter your body. Even though this perception changed over time, people viewed bathing as unhealthy and a means of contracting diseases.
In 2800 BC during the excavation of ancient Babylon, the first signs of soap-like products that were found were fats mixed with ashes. From about 1550 BC, Israelites adhered to laws dictating personal cleanliness, as well as cleanliness related to health and religious purification.
During the Black Plague, more people practiced personal hygiene by washing their hands with warm water, wine or vinegar.
From about 1300 to 1700 people began to use herbs to clean their teeth and a mixture of vinegar and warm water as a form of mouthwash, and the first bristle toothbrush was invented in 1498 by the Chinese. Pierre Fauchard, father of modern dentistry, created a foot pedal (similar to that of a sewing machine) with a rotating drill to treat cavities. Oddly enough - and this thought quite repulses me - but he recommended that people make use of urine (as it contains ammonia) to prevent cavities... Thankfully, since then a lot had changed.
In 300 BC, Romans began to use wiping practices (using materials such as wool and rosewater, and also cotton wool soaked in saltwater) in their toilet habits. In 1400 BC, the Chinese invented toilet paper.
The first toilets were invented by John Harington in 1596. Thereafter, the first practical water closet was patented by Joseph Bramah in England during 1778, while Thomas Crapper; a plumber and sanitary engineer, made contributions in modern septic systems and sanitary ware in the late 1800’s. It was only until 1852 when George Jennings patented the first flushing toilet.
Hand hygiene and medical importance
During the mid-1800’s, studies by Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss and Oliver Wendell Holmes realised that there were high maternal mortality rates (almost twice the amount of cases) related to puerperal fever in one obstetric clinic compared to another clinic they were overseeing. Semmelweiss, whom many refer to today as the father of hand hygiene, observed that healthcare workers visited the delivery theatre right after having performed autopsies. Along with this he also noticed a foul smell on their hands - even after they have washed their hands with soap and water.
This lead to the hypothesis that “cadaverous particles” were transmitted from both doctors and medical students between autopsy and delivery rooms, resulting in puerperal fever. He then instructed them to wash their hands with a chlorinated lime solution before contact with each patient and also after visiting the autopsy room. After this measure was implemented, a large drop in mortality rates were seen in the clinic that originally had the highest level of mortality which declined from 16% to 3% - compared to the 7% mortality rate in the other obstetric clinic.
Can you just imagine to have witnessed that discovery! We take handwashing practices as such an ordinary task to perform today, but that discovery paved that way for medical hygiene as we know it today.
Advances in medical hygiene
Dr. Joseph Lister, a British surgeon and medical scientist, prescribed surgeons to regularly wash their hands and make use of antiseptic techniques which played an important role in surgical mortality. He also pioneered preventative medicine. Lister’s principle was that bacteria should never gain entry through an operation wound still remains the basis of surgery today.
French biologist, microbiologist and chemist, Louis Pasteur - known as the father of microbiology - was renowned for his advancement and breakthrough in the prevention of diseases in the mid-1800’s and principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurisation. Pasteur’s as well as Robert Koch’s discoveries provided support for the germ theory of disease and its implementation in clinical medicine.
Largely, the driver behind healthcare - specifically in hospital reformation, was Florence Nightingale, founder of modern nursing. During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale and a team of nurses were sent to tend to British soldiers and greatly improved sanitary conditions, managing to reduce the death count by almost 70%! She then went on to establish St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Nightingale Training School for Nurses in 1860.
Furthermore, maternal mortality itself - not an uncommon occurrence during the twentieth century - improved greatly through an approach of improved obstetrical care, better public health and hygiene efforts as well as the use of antibiotics.
The upswing in life expectancy rates
Thanks to the use of antibiotics, improvements in cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation the period between 1930 and 1940 saw a drastic upswing in life expectancy rates, and decline in infant mortality rates.
When we look back at all the prominent milestones in the history of hygiene - and medical breakthroughs, it is noteworthy to appreciate how far mankind has come in the past century!
However many medical, microbial, nursing and healthcare breakthroughs were made in the field of hygiene - which are all important discoveries that were founded in the history of hygiene as we know it today - one of the core pillars of hygiene still remains valid; through basic hand hygiene; a role which we all take part in, we can limit the spread of diseases. With this being said the role of medical hygiene services and key hygiene solutions remain a critical part of society’s health and well being, in businesses, public environments as well as in our own personal capacities.
Keep the evolution going, download our handwashing posters and help everyone stay hygienic.