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Hero/ines of Hygiene

By: Danelle Marqui Brown

The concept of washing one’s hands, as a preventive public health measure, may seem rudimentary. However, in the late 19th century, the act of handwashing to circumvent potential diseases came to be a revolutionary discovery in the medical profession. Particularly, midwives and nurses play(ed) a crucial role in the human fight against infectious diseases.

(Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture: Schoolchildren washing their hands before eating lunch in the 1940s.)

Dubbed the Father of Hand Hygiene, Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis of the Vienna General Hospital, observed in 1846 a difference between the maternal mortality and infection rates of women who birthed in the doctor-led maternity ward compared to the adjacent midwife-led maternity ward of the hospital. As medical journalist Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D. wrote in her 2010 book, Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank:

“Semmelweis reasoned that doctors who perform autopsies before delivering babies carried something deadly from the morgue to the delivery room. He was proposing a sort of germ theory without knowing anything about germs. His colleagues saw otherwise. They saw a young arrogant doctor claiming that doctors were murders….Semmelweis demanded that everyone scrub with chlorine after autopsies. He said that washing would keep potentially infected material from passing from corpse to mother. For a while, colleagues adhered to his seemingly over-the-top cleanliness rule and maternal mortality plummeted from 20 percent to 1.3 percent.”

Nearly a decade later (1854 - 1855), Florence Nightingale, born on this day on May 12 1820, the founder of modern nursing, implemented hygiene practices, such as handwashing, into the operational practices of the war hospital she worked within. The second edition of the British reference, The Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), published since 1885, accredits Nightingale actions and leadership as the reason the hospital’s death rate went from 42% to 2%.

Unknown (1905). Miss Nightingale in the Hospital at Scutari [Illustration]. The Life of Florence Nightingale by Sarah A. Tooley, The MacMillan Company, New York. Retrieved from:



About the Author:

Danelle Marqui Brown is a liberal artist, STEAMinist, and founder of By Mnemosyne. Her experience resides in: art/creative direction, branding and design, healthcare, history, marketing, STEM, social impact, writing, and teaching/mentoring. She earned a Master of Liberal Arts degree (2016), with a concentration in the history of science, technology and medicine, from the Harvard Extension School (HES); a professional certificate in Religious Studies and Education (2015) through a partnership with the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) and HES; and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (2004), from the interior design program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Parallel to being a creative, Danelle moonlighted as a birth doula (trained and certified by DONA International) from 2007-2012. She is an Associate Member of the New York Academy of Medicine and serves on The Music & Health Clinic Steering Committee for The Louis Armstrong Center for Music & Medicine.


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