Ben Walker in black shirt and white background

Szia from Budapest! I am in Hungary taking a long-overdue break to recharge with my family, experience a new culture, try new foods and explore a different part of the world. Most importantly, though, I promised my wife I’d stop looking at the world through the lens of cleaning. I lasted almost 72 hours.

Budapest is a vibrant city, rich in a beautifully poignant, sometimes painful, history. Roughly 150 years ago, a very important person from the city made a significant contribution to the world. That contribution is the concept of handwashing standards and that person was Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis.

In the mid-1800’s, Dr. Semmelweis was a promising doctor at Vienna General Hospital’s first obstetric clinic in Austria. At the time, mortality rates in the obstetrics ward were three times higher than that of the other areas of the hospital. This was mostly due to puerperal fever, a devastating infection of a mother’s reproductive organs.

During this time, Semmelweis made an important observation. The obstetrics ward was part of the teaching ward, in which young doctors practiced procedures on cadavers. When an expectant mother arrived to deliver, the doctors practicing on cadavers would move to the delivery rooms to assist, without washing their hands.

As a remedy, Semmelweis instituted basic handwashing procedures for doctors moving from cadavers to live patients. This resulted in a significant drop in mortality rates and serious infections. Semmelweis, in an effort to elevate the medical practice, became an advocate for handwashing in hospitals. Sadly, the medical community was not ready to receive the message.

Handwashing — now considered common sense in the medical field — was wildly mocked and ridiculed as a method of prevention by Semmelweis’ peers. He lost all credibility as a doctor, was removed from the hospital staff and eventually suffered a mental breakdown, which ultimately led to his institutionalization. As he was being committed, he was beaten brutally by asylum guards, suffering wounds that led to his death 15 days later.

In a bitter irony, Semmelweis is now recognized as a pioneer. He was among the first in creating hygiene standards for the medical profession. This came with a very simple message that we still hear and grapple with today — the spread of infection can be directly related to cleanliness and hygiene.

I can’t think of a better background story to share as we prepare our departments and school facilities for the upcoming year. Almost like clockwork — and as soon as school is back in session across the country — we begin hearing about the latest outbreaks of influenza, norovirus, C.difficile and most recently, measles. When this happens, concerned parents often contact schools to find out the game plan for combatting the outbreak.

While well-intentioned, these questions can sidetrack your operation. Just about every October, as the school year shifts into gear, I can count on a flood of phone calls asking, “How do I successfully clean my school to remove the spread of (pick your favorite infectious disease)?”

My answer is simple: “This is your opportunity to teach administrators, students, faculty and staff about the importance of sensible handwashing and hygiene.”

Semmelweis’s story, while tragic, has taught us a lot. His observations shed light on how infections spread and revealed that something as simple as handwashing can protect people. In fact, it is a technique that has become the first line of defense against infections.

Here in Budapest, Semmelweis is being honored in a way he should have been long ago — his former home has been turned in to a medical history museum (Semmelweis Orvostörténeti Múzeum). I’m heading over there tomorrow to pay my respects and to touch a piece of history that is so crucial to our field.  
Ben Walker is COO at ManageMen, Inc., a leading cleaning industry consultancy specializing in training, transitions, auditing and educational materials. In addition to his consulting work, Walker is the author of ISSA’s best-selling book: 612 Cleaning Times and Tasks.