A (Surprisingly) Brief History Of HandwashingHistorians in the News
tags: public health, hygiene, interview
When is it that we first began to see soap or handwashing in the context of health?
Peter Ward: “It's a surprisingly recent development, actually. And it's really related to the long, long, complicated history of human hygiene. It's a story that … [goes] back to the Roman times. But it really picks up in the period from about the beginning of the 17th century onward. And there's been since that period of time a huge transformation of body care and body treatment that sort of began in the upper reaches of a number of Western communities and gradually diffused and percolated downwards to our own dear times, when we are now obsessed with our cleanliness. At least in some respects, it seems we exempt our hands to some extent. But the rest of us, we really pay a lot of attention to.”
On handwashing in the 20th century
Miryam Wahrman: “As we get to the mid-20th century, we begin to see that hand hygiene, in fact hygiene in general and the access to clean water, has changed the landscape in terms of human health very dramatically. And the average life expectancy from 100 years ago to today has increased from about the mid-40s, up to about 80 or more. And some of that has to do with public health and hygiene and even the simple act of having access to soap and water and the types of procedures that are done in hospitals using a septic technique now. Where now we don't have as high a risk of infection of our patients, going from patient to patient.
"These are all tremendously important improvements in terms of health, in terms of average life expectancy, in terms of recovery from disease. And these all came about thanks to scientists that were able to show the link between germs and disease, and specific germs and specific disease. So it is a long story and it does cover about 150 years, but they're really tremendously exciting. 150 years in terms of science. I think the thing we have to keep in mind is that the science is critical in terms of helping us to move forward and to be able to deal with this challenge.”
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