The maverick who got us to wash our hands

The reason you’re encouraged to wash your hands in the face of Covid-19 may seem logical now, but for centuries it wasn’t. It took one of science’s most remarkable – and tragic – mavericks to show the extreme value of a simple act. His story is worth telling.

Here it is, in an extract from my book “Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick”:

When science drops the ball: The uncomfortable truth about science

Unfortunately, because scientific research drives innovation in fields such as medicine, pharmaceuticals, armaments, technology, agriculture, sport and nutrition, it can provide significant financial and political leverage. It has therefore attracted more than its fair share of villains: scientists misrepresenting their findings to fall in line with the demands of their sponsors; research organisations colouring their work to capture the imagination of an unsuspecting media; so-called ‘alternative healing’ practitioners dressing up their ‘therapies’ in the guise of medicine; politicians twisting data to drive their agendas; lobby groups cherry-picking data to seemingly justify their cause; pharmaceutical companies suppressing research that exposes faults in their products; food supplement companies marketing products as critical components of a ‘healthy lifestyle’; cosmetic companies lying about the toxicity of their products; and food and beverage multinationals peddling products with marginal, if any, nutritional value as ‘part of a healthy balanced meal’.

Nonetheless, within this mash of shoddy research, marketing spin, misrepresentation and downright criminal behaviour, science somehow manages to retain an element of structured integrity. The result is a developing assembly of authoritative knowledge with which the bulk of scientists agree. This then becomes what is referred to as evidence-based, conventional scientific knowledge.

But then every now and then a scientist comes along, takes conventional wisdom by the scruff of the neck and gives it a good shake.

But then every now and then a scientist comes along, takes that conventional wisdom by the scruff of the neck and gives it a good shake. They do so for any one of a number of reasons: an acrimonious disregard for authority; an overly cavalier approach to their work; a larger-than-life lifestyle and public image; or because they have unearthed something that others had missed.

For their effrontery to the conformities of the discipline, they pay the price. They are often pilloried, shunned, publicly ridiculed, even excommunicated; and yet they are essential to the very health of science. They encourage it to re-examine conventional wisdom and, where necessary, prune it; occasionally even uproot it. They are the mavericks; sometimes they’re good for science, sometimes they’re bad.

‘Cadaveric Corpuscles’

There are many lesser-known mavericks who changed science, people like Ignaz Semmelweis, a 19th-century Hungarian physician. Before the late 1800s a common cause of death among mothers who had recently given birth was puerperal fever, otherwise known as childbed fever. At that time, it was not uncommon for doctors at hospitals to continually shuttle between performing autopsies and attending to women in labour, and not washing their hands between procedures.

We may shudder with horror at the thought of it now, but this was a time before the discovery of bacteria. Semmelweis became concerned when his research showed that women who gave birth at home and those who were attended to only by nurses had lower levels of infection than those who gave birth at hospitals where they were attended to by doctors. He concluded that obstetricians who also performed autopsies were transferring what he called ‘cadaveric corpuscles’ from the bodies of mothers who had died from infection to those who were in labour. 

He conducted trials whereby he instructed doctors and medical students in specific labour wards to wash their hands in a chlorine solution before attending to women in labour, and then compared the rates of infection to those where attending staff did not wash their hands. The results, as you can imagine, were clear, but not to his colleagues.

The medical fraternity rejected his findings and conclusions, not only because they clashed with conventional medical procedure at that time, but also because they directly implicated doctors in the deaths of their patients. They considered it an affront to their profession. Semmelweis was also unable to provide any scientific explanation for his findings. 

It wasn’t until decades later when Louis Pasteur developed the concept of germ theory and discovered the pathology of puerperal fever that Semmelweis was vindicated. By then it was too late for the man who pioneered the now common medical practice of basic hygiene. Crushed with guilt over his role in the deaths of so many women, rejected and ridiculed by his colleagues, he succumbed to dementia and was admitted to an asylum where he was bludgeoned to death by guards. 


So, wash your hands, and quietly thank science for its occasional maverick.