The Resistance to Antisepsis in the 19th Century: A Briefing on Two European Antisepsis Proponents

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Ben Ouyang


handwashing, joseph lister, ignaz semmelweis, infection, history of medicine


Hand washing is now ubiquitous throughout hospitals of the world, with signage and instructions in every hallway and hygiene area. However, the activity has not always been held in the same regard. In fact, doctors in the past had actively resisted hand-washing before coming in contact with their patients, often unknowingly causing lethal infections. Why did they scoff at the idea of washing hands? In this essay, I turn to primary and secondary historical sources to describe the development of hand washing and antiseptic techniques through two important 19th-century European proponents: Ignaz Semmelweis and Joseph Lister, and why the medical society resisted their ideas. Poor communication, pride, and a resistance to change were major factors fueling the resistance. Eventually, scientific rigor and evidence convinced the medical community, and hand washing and antiseptic techniques became widely adopted.