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The (Surprisingly) Brief History Of Handwashing

An illustraton picture shows a person washing their hands with disinfectant soap on March 4, 2020, in Heiloo. (Koen Van Weel/AFP)
An illustraton picture shows a person washing their hands with disinfectant soap on March 4, 2020, in Heiloo. (Koen Van Weel/AFP)

This program originally aired on May 11, 2020. 

Handwashing can help kill the coronavirus. But you may be surprised by how short the history of handwashing actually is among humans.


Miryam Wahrman, professor of biology at William Paterson University. Author of “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World,” published in 2016. (@MiryamWahrman)

Peter Ward, professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia. Author of the 2019 book “The Clean Body: A Modern History.” (@UBC_History)

Emma Robbins, director of the Navajo Water Project at DigDeep, a human rights nonprofit dedicated to water access in America. Navajo artist and activist. (@robbinzintherez)

Interview Highlights

On the effectiveness of handwashing

Miryam Wahrman: “Soap is hydrophobic. And as are cell membranes. And also the coverings around viruses. And so that type of hydrophobic interaction can disrupt the structure. But the other part of the process of cleansing hands is that various things can stick on our hands. And soap helps to break the bonds between what has attached to our skin and it helps to get rid of it. And then we just rinse it down the drain. So that’s another really important part of the process of why soap and water are the most effective way to cleanse the hands. Not everything has to get killed, not all the microbes have to get killed, as long as they are removed from the surface of the skin. Then we rinse them away.”

When is it that we first began to see soap or handwashing in the context of health?

Peter Ward: “It’s a surprisingly recent development, actually. And it’s really related to the long, long, complicated history of human hygiene. It’s a story that … [goes] back to the Roman times. But it really picks up in the period from about the beginning of the 17th century onward. And there’s been since that period of time a huge transformation of body care and body treatment that sort of began in the upper reaches of a number of Western communities and gradually diffused and percolated downwards to our own dear times, when we are now obsessed with our cleanliness. At least in some respects, it seems we exempt our hands to some extent. But the rest of us, we really pay a lot of attention to.”

On handwashing in the 20th century

Miryam Wahrman: “As we get to the mid-20th century, we begin to see that hand hygiene, in fact hygiene in general and the access to clean water, has changed the landscape in terms of human health very dramatically. And the average life expectancy from 100 years ago to today has increased from about the mid-40s, up to about 80 or more. And some of that has to do with public health and hygiene and even the simple act of having access to soap and water and the types of procedures that are done in hospitals using a septic technique now. Where now we don’t have as high a risk of infection of our patients, going from patient to patient.

“These are all tremendously important improvements in terms of health, in terms of average life expectancy, in terms of recovery from disease. And these all came about thanks to scientists that were able to show the link between germs and disease, and specific germs and specific disease. So it is a long story and it does cover about 150 years, but they’re really tremendously exciting. 150 years in terms of science. I think the thing we have to keep in mind is that the science is critical in terms of helping us to move forward and to be able to deal with this challenge.”

How have things changed in terms of access to running water, bathrooms, et cetera?

Peter Ward: “About half of American homes had a bathroom in the 1940 census. And today, virtually all American homes have a bathroom. As indeed, the homes everywhere [in] the Western world. Some of them have many. So that transformation has been gradual and varied from one part of the country to the next. One social group to the next, as well. But it’s really been one of the fundamental changes that’s been associated with the hygienic revolution and the handwashing part of all that.”

” … There are these additional layers that have to do with access to privacy, access to water, development of effective sewage systems, and so on and so forth. And the people who are marginal in our world today are the people who live beyond the edges of these things. There are certainly — I know people in the United States who do live beyond the edges. And there certainly are people in my own country as well. Who many of them are First Nations people, the indigenous peoples of North America, who live in more remote areas and who do not have easy access to clean water.”

On access to clean water in the Navajo Nation

Emma Robbins: “When you are able to wash your hands, it’s very empowering. You’re reducing the risk and you’re literally in your hands, you have the ability to save lives. However, when you don’t have running water in your homes, you can’t do that for 20 seconds. You know, you can use bottled water, but that takes a ton of bottled water to wash your hands. And many families don’t have that luxury. And so there’s a third element that I always say. Well, number one, when you’re leaving your house to go get water, you’re exposing yourself to the virus potentially. You know, oftentimes you can get to stores and there isn’t any bottled water that’s left either on the reservation or in border towns.

“The second thing is when you’re doing that, there’s a lot of stress that’s involved. And we see constantly on social media, on the Internet and TV that those are the things that we can do, staying at home, handwashing. But when you can’t do that, it’s scary. You know, you start to feel like the other, that you’re not able to protect yourselves or your families. And it can be really, really, really impactful on everybody of all ages. And, you know, we’re already all experiencing not having money, not having work, you know, having to stay at home, especially in the Navajo Nation. They have a 57 hour curfew on the weekends and it’s hard. And so not having that is a lot more stressful.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “The Clean Body: A Modern History” by Peter Ward

Excerpted from “The Clean Body: A Modern History” by Peter Ward © 2019. Published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, McGill-Queen’s University Press. All rights reserved.

Excerpt from “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World” by Miryam Wahrman

Excerpted from “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World” by Miryam Wahrman © 2016. Published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, University Press of New England. All rights reserved.

The Embryo Project Encyclopedia (Originally published in The New England Quarterly Journal of Medicine and Surgery): “‘The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever’ (1843), by Oliver Wendell Holmes” — “In 1843, physician Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote and published “The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever,” an essay about puerperal fever, a disease that occurs mainly as a result of bacterial infection in the uterine tract of women after giving birth or undergoing an abortion. In the essay, Holmes argues that puerperal fever is spread through birth attendants like physicians and midwives who make contact with the disease and carry it from patient to patient. The article was published in The New England Quarterly Journal of Medicine and Surgery in 1843.”

Vox: “The evolution of hand-washing, explained by a historian” — “Are we all washing our hands several times a day? As the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic spreads, we should all be washing our hands several times a day. Take a moment right now, go give your hands a scrub with some warm soapy water for 20 seconds, and then come back. Maybe spritz around some hand sanitizer if you don’t have access to a sink. Put on a little hand lotion so your skin doesn’t get too chapped.”

Popular Mechanics: “The Shockingly Recent History of People Actually Washing Their Hands” — “It has become a ubiquitous mantra in the time of COVID-19: Wash your hands. Cheap and easy to do, it’s one of the few pieces of advice that is essentially without controversy. And yet, hand-washing is a more recent development than you might expect, and the habit did not catch on quickly.”

Washington Post: “Americans are told to wash hands to fight coronavirus. But some don’t trust the tap.” — “For the Chavez family and many others in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley, bottled water is the toilet paper of their coronavirus pandemic — an everyday necessity that vanished from supermarket shelves.”

The Guardian: “Keep it clean: The surprising 130-year history of handwashing” — “It felt strange when Boris Johnson emerged from the first Covid-19 Cobra meeting on 2 March and told us to wash our hands while singing Happy Birthday. The preppers among us had panic-shopped while awaiting his pronouncements, and others fretted about vulnerable loved ones, travel plans, the nightmare of simultaneous homeworking and home-schooling, and not being able to work at all. And all our leader had was this?”

Freethink: “COVID’s Unique Challenge For the Navajo Nation” — “Sprawling across roughly 27,000 square miles of deserts and high plateaus, the Navajo Nation is not immune to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The sovereign nation’s battle with SARS-CoV-2 has seen 2,373 confirmed cases, as of May 2, and 73 deaths. Its per capita infection rate trailed only New York and New Jersey by late April.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.