Mother was right: Wash your hands

By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.

As we all know, our Mother’s incessant reminder to “go wash your hands with soap and water” before we sat down at the dinner table was great advice after all. We now know that washing our hands is one of the best ways to protect ourselves and our families from getting sick. But it wasn’t always that way.

In the mid-19th Century, the medical profession had a hard time wrapping its head around the notion that invisible entities were the cause of childbed fever. The disease was most often caused by A and B Streptococcus and was the main reason for a staggering amount of mothers and their infants dying postpartum. In fact, many famous women such as Elizabeth of York, Mary Wollstonecraft and Queen Jane Seymour died of puerperal fever shortly after giving birth.

History credits Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician who practiced at a hospital in Vienna, Austria as the first doctor to associate the link between hand washing and puerperal fever. It was Dr. Semmelweis who proposed the use of hand washing and chlorine solutions in the Obstetrics Ward. 

However, while Dr. Semmelweis is credited for the implementation of washing hands, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes published an article in the New England Quarterly Journal of Medicine and Surgery entitled, “The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever,” in which he identified doctors as the link between puerperal fever. His theory stemmed from seeing his colleagues contract the disease after performing autopsies on the dead. Both doctors knew the importance of good hygiene and Dr. Semmelweis’ findings and practice reduced the rate of puerperal fever in his clinic and as a result, reduced lives. In fact, Dr. Semmelweis demonstrated that childbirth fever was contagious and that its incidence would be reduced from 13 percent to 2 percent or less by enforcing appropriate hand-washing behavior by medical care-givers.

Unfortunately, both Dr. Semmelweis and Dr. Holmes were criticized for their findings. While Dr. Holmes eventually published additional research which became notable on the germ theory of disease, Dr. Semmelweis was rejected by his colleagues and died in 1865, never given the recognition so deserved for his finding on hand washing and the spread of disease. Unfortunately, Semmelweis’s ideas were not accepted by all of his colleagues. Indeed, many were outraged at the suggestion that they were the cause of their patients’ miserable deaths. Consequently, Semmelweis met with enormous resistance and criticism. 

It was only 20 years after Dr. Semmelweis’ death, when Louis Pasteur connected the germ theory of disease with Dr. Semmelweis’s research, that hand washing has become the foundation of modern medical practice.

Follow Five Steps to Wash Your Hands the Right Way

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention washing your hands is easy, and it’s one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs. The Center says the following five steps will stop germs from spreading from one person to another and throughout an entire community:

1. West your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.

2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.

4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.

5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

Use Sand Sanitizer When You Can’t Use Soap and Water

While washing hands with soap and water is the best way to get rid of germs in most situations, if soap and water is not available, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands; however, the Center emphasizes that: 

a. Sanitizers do not get rid of all types of germs.

b. Hand sanitizers may not be as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

c. Hand sanitizers might not remove harmful chemicals from hands like pesticides and heavy metals.

How to Use Hand Sanitizer

1. Apply the gel product to the palm of one hand.

2. Rub your hands together.

3. Rub the gel over all the surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry. This should take around 20 seconds.

The best takeaway: To keep disease, especially the flu away, wash your hands with soap and water several times a day. Germs can live on any surface or two hours or more. If someone in your home, school or office is infected those germs can reside on anything—phones, tables, desks, toys, and books. The best remedy: wash hands with soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds while singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice while rubbing.

For more information on handwashing, visit CDC’s Handwashing website at