On Saturday I heard a podcast that gave me a deeper, more sobering version of a story I heard years ago: the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, the doctor who figured out that he could stop killing women (in obstetrics) by washing his hands. Of course they tie it to how important handwashing is in fighting COVID-19, and why.
It really is a sad story, because bacteria hadn’t been discovered yet, so although huge numbers of new mothers were dying, when he suggested washing hands it must have come across like some parlor magic: “I wash my hands, and presto: it’s a miracle!” But as I said a few months ago, a core truth in science is that not all truth has been discovered yet.
It’s also a sad story because since bacteria hadn’t been discovered, the senior doctors saw no problem in moving to maternity directly from the autopsies they’d been doing, without washing. (See what I mean? Gross, and tragic.) But there’s a lot more to the story that I’d never heard.
The podcast was a replay of the April 1 edition of the great WNYC radio show RadioLab. They’re great storytellers, so I encourage you to listen to the 35 minute episode. (It’s called “Dispatch 2” because it’s their second episode about COVID life. Tomorrow I’ll blog about another.) If you can’t listen, there’s a transcript.
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