Who is Ignaz Semmelweis? Google Doodle Honors Handwashing Pioneer and 'Father of Infection Control' Amid Coronavirus Crisis

Today's Google Doodle depicts Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician and "father of infection control," widely recognized as the first person to realize the medical benefits of handwashing.

The doodle contains a detailed guide to handwashing, which organizations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) to the World Health Organization (WHO) say is key to limiting the spread of the new coronavirus.

It also happens that on March 20, 1847, Semmelweis was appointed Chief Resident in Vienna General Hospital's maternity clinic. It was here that he gleaned the importance of handwashing, demonstrating that medics who regularly cleaned their hands could help limit the spread of infection.

So, who was Ignaz Semmelweis? Semmelweis a nineteenth-century midwife, born in Buda—today Budapest—in Hungary on July 1, 1818. He moved to Austria and obtained a degree at the University of Vienna, before taking a post at the Vienna General Hospital.

At the time, a little-understood sickness called "childbed fever" was running rampant in Austria and across Europe, leading to a staggering number of deaths among new mothers in hospital wards. It was in an effort to track down the cause and prevent these deaths that Semmelweis realized the importance of handwashing. Through thorough analysis, he worked out what, or rather who, was behind the spread of the disease—hospital doctors.

At this point, hospital hygiene was lacking. Hand sanitizer was a long way from being invented, let alone used routinely, and even basic handwashing was pretty much non-existent. Medics would move from one patient to the next, taking with them bacteria and other germs and causing infection. The problem only got worse in the nineteenth century as dissection became an increasingly common practice.

Once Semmelweis identified a cause, he introduced strict handwashing rules in his maternity wards, making sure all medical staff washed their hands between patient examinations. This simple practice dramatically reduced the number of deaths, showing the importance of good hygiene. But despite all his success, the practice was not picked up elsewhere.

His peers were skeptical and it was not until much later, when "germ theory" was more widely accepted, that handwashing was taken seriously. As BMJ Quality & Safety reports, Semmelweis fled Vienna out of humiliation and betrayal when his post was not renewed and ended his life as a patient in a mental hospital, dying at just 47.

Today, his reputation has been restored and he is remembered as "the father of infection control" for his contribution to hygiene and handwashing in particular.

Google Doodle - Ignaz Semmelweis
Today's Google Doodle is Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician and pioneer of handwashing. Google

Handwashing has taken on new importance during the COVID-19 outbreak. The WHO offers a step-by-step guide on how to wash your hands properly—a process that should take the same amount of time as singing "Happy Birthday" twice.

Advice includes cleaning your hands regularly, washing with soap and water and drying thoroughly, and using an alcohol-based handrub if you do not have access to soap and water.