Women were dying from childbirth at hospitals. This 19th-century doctor figured out why.
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March of Dimes

Today, we know that washing our hands is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs.

But how we came to know that is pretty fascinating.

Image via iStock.


Handwashing is actually a relatively new practice — even for doctors.

In fact, one of the first doctors to realize how important handwashing could be — Ignaz Semmelweis — didn’t discover this fact until 1847. And even after he did realize it, the battle to convince the rest of the medical community wasn’t easy.

The 19th century has been described by some historians as “a golden age of the physician and scientist” because for the first time, doctors were expected to have scientific training.

They were also expected to use symptom-based diagnoses to solve medical ailments. And to do this, of course, medicine relied on understanding what was happening inside the human body to get at the root of disease.

So, autopsies became all the rage.

Not only did they form a critical part of a doctor’s training, but the doctors who regularly performed them were the most respected in the medical community. An unfortunate byproduct of this, though, was the erroneous belief that the dirtier the doctor, the better the doctor.

In fact, there are accounts of doctors going directly from their last autopsy to deliver a baby or treat a patient without changing their clothes.

Enter Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis.

A portrait of Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis. Image via Jeño Doby/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1846, Semmelweis had just started his new job at the maternity clinic at Vienna General Hospital.

At that time, women were dying at staggering rates in hospitals shortly after giving birth from “childbed fever,” a disease also called puerperal fever. It was a cruel infection, causing raging fevers, painful abscesses, an infection in the uterus and birth canal, sepsis, and then finally, death — all within about three days of the baby’s delivery. And it was the single most common cause of maternal death at the time.

Being a man of science, Semmelweis wanted to understand why so many women were dying in his clinic. So he studied two maternity wards in the hospital — one staffed by doctors and medical students, the other by midwives — and recorded the number of deaths in each ward.

Vienna General Hospital, where Semmelweis worked. Image via Josef & Peter Schafer/Wikimedia Commons.

His results showed that women died at a rate nearly five times higher in the ward staffed by doctors and medical students.

But it wasn’t until one of his colleagues, a pathologist, got sick and died after pricking his finger in an autopsy of someone who had died from childbed fever that Semmelweis realized that anyone, not just mothers, could get sick from puerperal fever, and the reason the midwives' ward had fewer deaths was because they didn't do autopsies.

He theorized that there must be some “cadaverous particles” or “morbid poison” that doctors were getting on their hands during autopsies. And the doctors in the ward were then transferring these particles inside the women when they delivered the baby, which then made the women sick.

Today, these “cadaverous particles” are known as bacteria, such as streptococcus pyogenes.

A photomicrograph of streptococcus pyogenes bacteria, which causes puerperal fever.  Image via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Wikimedia Commons.

Semmelweis immediately ordered the medical staff to start cleaning their hands and instruments before delivering babies.

They were told to use a chlorine lime solution, not soap, until they could no longer smell the bodies they had dissected.

And it worked — chlorine is actually a great disinfectant. The rate of puerperal fever fell drastically in the doctor’s ward.

The first edition of Semmelweis' published findings. Image via István Benedek/Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, the Semmelweis' colleagues did not embrace his findings — they were outraged at the suggestion that they were the cause of their patients' deaths. Semmelweis was fired from the hospital and eventually committed to an asylum. He died at the asylum two weeks later. (Several historians believe that he died, after being beaten at the asylum, from sepsis — an infection in the bloodstream caused by germs.)

It would take about 20 years before his ideas would start to be accepted by the medical community. And even then, it was "germ theory" — and the work of Louis Pasteur in the late-1860s — that really convinced anyone of the importance of hygiene and handwashing.

Over a 150 years later, though, Semmelweis is finally getting the recognition he deserves because the simple act of handwashing is one of the most important tools we have in public health.

And its benefits extend well beyond the hospital. Washing your hands reduces the chances of getting diarrheal illnesses by 31%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also reduces the occurrence of respiratory illnesses — including colds — by 16 to 21%.

That’s why in the 1980s, the first nationally endorsed hand hygiene guidelines were released by the CDC, after a series of outbreaks of food-borne and health care-associated infections. And over the next few decades, a number of other guidelines have followed to stress the importance to the general public.

Image via iStock.

Today, the battle to promote this public health tool is still not over.

Diarrhea and respiratory infections remain leading causes of death in the developing world — claiming about 3.5 million children every year — because people either don't know how important handwashing is or don't have access to a reliable, clean water source. There are also still over 1.4 million cases of health care-associated infections around the world. But through education initiatives, NGOs all over the world are hoping to bring about change with this one simple habit.

Proper hand hygiene is still one of the best ways to fight these infections and diseases — and we have Dr. Semmelweis to thank.

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This year more than ever, many families are anticipating an empty dinner table. Shawn Kaplan lived this experience when his father passed away, leaving his mother who struggled to provide food for her two children. Shawn is now a dedicated volunteer and donor with Second Harvest Food Bank in Middle Tennessee and encourages everyone to give back this holiday season with Amazon.

Watch the full story:

Over one million people in Tennessee are at risk of hunger every day. And since the outbreak of COVID-19, Second Harvest has seen a 50% increase in need for their services. That's why Amazon is Delivering Smiles and giving back this holiday season by fulfilling hundreds of AmazonSmile Charity Lists, donating essential pantry and food items to help organizations like Second Harvest to feed those hit the hardest this year.

Visit AmazonSmile Charity Lists to donate directly to a local food bank or charity in your community, or simply shop smile.amazon.com and Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price of eligible products to your selected charity.

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A 2015 survey conducted by the National Union of Students found that 60% of respondents turned to porn to fill in the gaps in sex education. While 40% of those people said they learned a little, 75% of respondents said they felt porn created unrealistic expectations when it comes to sex. Some of the unrealistic expectations from porn can be dangerous. A study found that 88% of porn contained violence, and another study found that those who consumed porn were more likely to become sexually aggressive.

But now the thing that breaks those unrealistic expectations… might also be porn? Pornhub has launched a sex education section.

The adult website's first series is simply titled, "Pornhub Sex Ed" and contains 11 videos and is accessible through the Pornhub Sexual Wellness Center. The section also contains articles, some showing real anatomy and examples in order to bust myths people may have picked up on other portions of the website.

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A lot of people here are like family to me," Michelle says about Bread for the City — a community nonprofit located in Washington DC that provides local residents with food, clothing, health care, social advocacy, and legal services. And since the pandemic began, the need to support organizations like Bread for the City is greater than ever, which is why Amazon is Delivering Smiles to local charities across the country this holiday season.

Watch the full story:

Amazon is giving back by fulfilling hundreds of AmazonSmile Charity Lists, and donating essential pantry and food items to help organizations like Bread for the City provide to those disproportionately impacted this year.

Visit AmazonSmile Charity Lists to donate directly to a local charity in your community, or simply shop smile.amazon.com and Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price of eligible products to your charity of choice.
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When Madeline Swegle was a little girl growing up in Burke, VA, she loved watching the Blue Angels zip through the sky. Her family went to see the display every time it was in town, and it was her parents' encouragement to pursue her dreams that led her to the U.S. Naval Academy in 2017.

Before beginning the intense three-year training required to become a tactical air (TACAIR) pilot, Swegle had never been in an aircraft before; piloting was simply something she was interested in. It turns out she's got a gift for it—and not only is she skilled, she finds the "exhilaration to be unmatched."

"I'm excited to have this opportunity to work harder and fly high performance jet aircraft in the fleet," Swegle said in a statement released by the Navy. "It would've been nice to see someone who looked like me in this role; I never intended to be the first. I hope it's encouraging to other people."

As Swegle's story shows, representation and equality matter. And the responsibility to advance equality for all people - especially Black Americans facing racism - falls on individuals, organizations, businesses, and governmental leadership. This clear need for equality is why P&G established the Take On Race Fund to fight for justice, advance economic opportunity, enable greater access to education and health care, and make our communities more equitable. The funds raised go directly into organizations like NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, YWCA Stand Against Racism and the United Negro College Fund, helping to level the playing field.

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While many of us have understandably let the challenges of 2020 get under our skin and bring us down, a young man from Florida was securing his place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Chris Nikic became the first person with Down syndrome to complete a full triathlon.

For the majority of people, a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride or a 26.2 mile run would be difficult on its own. The Ironman competition requires participants to complete them all in one grueling race. In a statement, Special Olympics Florida President and CEO Sherry Wheelock called Chris "an inspiration to all of us." She continued, "We are incredibly proud of Chris and the work he has put in to achieve this monumental goal. He's become a hero to athletes, fans, and people across Florida and around the world."

Nikic's journey to become an Ironman started off as a challenge far less lofty. He and his father, Nik, created the "1 percent better challenge." The idea was to keep Chris motivated during the pandemic and beyond. According to The Washington Post, the idea was for Chris to improve his workouts by one percent each day because he "doesn't like pain" but loves "food, videos games and my couch." The plan was to keep building strength and stamina while keeping his eye on the grand prize of completing a triathlon. Nik told the Panama City News Herald, "I was concerned because after high school and after graduation a lot of kids with Down syndrome become isolated and just start living a life of isolation. I said, 'Look, let's go find him something to get him back into the world and get him involved,' so we started looking around and we were fortunate that at the same time Special Olympics Florida started this triathlon program, and I thought, 'What a great way to get him started, get him in shape and get him to make some friends.'"


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