The most important medical advance in history involved soap and water

As flu season hits what may be its peak all around us, let’s stop for a second and think about some sage— and ultimately ignored — advice from a man named Ignaz Semmelweis.

Semmelweis was a doctor in the mid-1840s who, through some experimentation, found that one simple act could reduce deaths in the maternity clinic of General Hospital in Vienna.

That act? Hand-washing.

At the time, many women died shortly after giving birth of what became known as “childbed fever.” Semmelweis, after testing a few hypothesis, discovered that the women who were attended by male doctors — the same doctors who were performing autopsies — were dying much more often than those attended by female midwives. The big difference? The midwives did not perform autopsies.

In short, Semmelweis concluded that the doctors must be getting what he dubbed “cadaverous particles” on their hands and surgical instruments, and then transferring them to the women. He recommended that all the doctors wash their hands and instruments using soap and water, and then with a chlorine solution. While the solution was a way to get rid of odor, it had a secondary, more important affect that Semmelweis didn’t realize: it killed germs.

After the practice began, “the rate of childbed fever fell dramatically,” writes NPR’s Rebecca Davis. Read the full story here.

Doctors resisted these efforts at sanitation, in part out of arrogance. Semmelweis, however, had discovered what’s through of as the single-most important medical advancement in public medical health: washing hands can save lives.

So take a cue from Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, and do what his colleagues refused to do: keep your hands clean. Wash them properly, with soap and water, by following these tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

• Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
• Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
• Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
• Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
• Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

The CDC says you should wash them:
• Before, during, and after preparing food
• Before eating food
• Before and after caring for someone who is sick
• Before and after treating a cut or wound
• After using the toilet
• After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
• After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
• After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
• After touching garbage

We’ll add another tip: wash them (discreetly, so as not to offend) after shaking hands with someone. A bottle of hand-sanitizer — one with at least 60 percent alcohol — is good in a pinch, but isn’t nearly as effective as soap and water.

Keep your hands clean, and you’ll greatly reduce the chances of getting sick this flu season. You’ll also help keep others from getting sick, too.