Hand washing, together with social distancing, seemingly remains the most effective way of avoiding the spread of the coronavirus.

For all the technology and medical knowledge we currently have at our disposal, a cure and a vaccine for the coronavirus still appears some way off.

And considering that there has never been a fully effective remedy that can cure most common colds and cases of flu, we certainly can’t rely on researchers and medical people magically conjuring up a solution.

So for now, we continue to rely on one of the most basic forms of protection against the transmission of diseases – good personal hygiene practices. Keeping your hands clean, avoiding touching your face with your hands, and avoiding contact with other people.

Hand washing seems so obvious to us now, yet 170 years ago this was far from the case when Hungarian physician and scientist Dr Ignaz Semmelweis first arrived at the conclusion.

How the discovery was made

While working in a hospital in Vienna, Austria, Semmelweis oversaw two maternity wards. He noticed a big difference in mortality rates between the two wards: 17% of patients in the first ward died of child-bed fever (known today as puerperal fever), compared to only 4% in the second ward.

This was despite there being no difference in the procedures which were carried out and despite the fact that the second ward was more crowded than the first. Mothers were begging not to be admitted to the first ward, saying that they would rather give birth on the street,

Semmelweis was said to be “severely troubled” by the differences, and was quoted saying “it made me so miserable that life seemed worthless”.

It was initially thought that poisonous air could be the problem. But the answer came after Semmelweis’ good friend and doctor, Jakob Kolletschka, was cut by a student’s scalpel while performing a post-mortem exam. Kolletschka developed blood poisoning and passed away.

On further investigation, Semmelweis found that the first ward, where the mortality rate was higher, was next to a post-mortem room where autopsies were carried out by the same doctors and medical students who worked in the maternity ward.

The second ward, with a much lower death rate, was staffed with only midwives, who never visited the post-mortem room.

Semmelweis determined during his friend’s autopsy that his lesions matched those of the dead body in the post-mortem examination – which the student whose blade had cut Kolletschka, had been working on. This led to the deduction that the germs had been passed on through simple contact.

Hand washing causes mortality rate to drop

Upon that discovery, Semmelweis insisted that all hospital staff wash their hands with calcium chloride. And within two years, the death rate in both clinics had dropped to just over 1%.

Semmelweis also implemented the cleaning of medical instruments, which amazingly had not been a priority until then.

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Semmelweis perceived as a crazy man

But despite his breakthrough in hand washing – today which seems like common sense, Semmelweis’ findings were met with hostility and mockery.

Many of the medical professionals of the time, who would have held gentleman status, were angered by Semmelweis’ suggestion that their hands could be unclean.

Semmelweis is today known as ‘The Savior of Mothers’. But over a century ago, public sentiment turned against him and his ideas which were deemed fanatical and deranged. His public behavior became erratic and he penned several angry letters to some of Europe’s most prominent obstetricians and called the medical fraternity ‘ignorant murderers’.

In 1865, Semmelweis was called upon to ‘inspect’ new facilities at an insane asylum. But it was a trick to capture the doctor and he found himself imprisoned.

His treatment included being doused in icy water and force-fed laxatives. And when a wound he sustained to his hand while struggling to avoid being taken captive developed gangrene, the doctor passed away two weeks later, at only 47-years-old.

Only two decades later, through the work of Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister, was Semmelweis’ finding – that hand washing could save lives – finally accepted.

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