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History of Hygiene
Graphs and Statistics

Hospitals and Health Care


Ancient Israel: Quarantine was stressed in Israelite law, preventing contact with diseased persons and their items, as well as with corpses and carcasses. Diseased garments were burned, and isolation measures put in place for individuals and the household in the case of infectious disease outbreaks.

Ancient Babylon: Everyone's a doctor. The sick were laid out in the street so that passers-by could offer advice.

431 BC: The earliest hospitals are thought to have been established in Sri Lanka. Early hospitals in India were established from 230 BC.

AD 1st C: Ancient hygiene and antiseptics. Aulus Cornelius Celcus of Rome advocated cleanliness, wound-washing and treatment with vinegar and thyme oil, both of which have antiseptic properties. Other early antiseptics included pitch, wine, copper, silver and mercury.

Question   How would you feel about…

  • Needing treatment for disease like a hole in your head? The ancient practice of “trepanning” or “trephining” was making a hole – 2.5 to 5 cm in diameter – in the skull to allow disease to escape from its victim. Skulls treated in this fashion have been found in Europe and in Peru.
  • Operations as a last resort? Before anaesthetics, pain was dulled using marijuana, opium or hashish in China and India, and alcohol, cocaine or morphine in Europe and the USA. Acupuncture was also used in China. Surgery was still an excruciating affair, with patients being strapped down and the skill of the surgeon based on how quickly the procedure was done. Amputations were cauterised with pitch.

Trophy   1840s: Sweet pain relief! Ether was the first anaesthetic to be used during surgery, followed by chloroform, then nitrous oxide. Local anaesthetic was introduced in 1877. However, longer and more complicated operations without sufficient knowledge of infection or antisepsis meant that the infection rate was very high.

1847: Handwashing. Dr Semmelweis, working at the Vienna Maternity Hospital, made the link between the prevalence of puerperal (childbed) fever and dirty hands. He ordered doctors, nurses and midwives to wash their hands in chlorinated water before contact with each patient. Despite a dramatic decrease in the death rate he was ridiculed for many years.

1860s: Antiseptic. Dr Lister introduced the use of antiseptic in English hospitals. At this time, approximately 50% of hospital patients died due to infection after surgery. Lister used carbolic acid solutions to soak wound dressings, spray on surgical instruments, and spray on the wound during surgery. 1939-1945: Dakin's solution containing sodium hypochlorite was first used using World War II as an antiseptic to treat infected wounds.

1880: The autoclave. Latvian surgeon Ernst von Bergmann introduced steam sterilization of surgical instruments.

Late 1800s: Pathogens isolated. German doctor Robert Koch proved that microscopic organisms cause disease, isolating the organisms which caused anthrax and tuberculosis.

Today, knowledge about the causes of infection, use of antiseptic, anaesthetic and post-surgical pain relief makes health care a much less terrifying prospect.


useful stuff...

How Australian pandemics have changed! The 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic caused over 10,000 deaths in Australia,14 whereas the 2009-10 H1N1 pandemic ("Swine Flu") caused 191 deaths.15 English knights were required to bathe at least once in their lives - during the ritual of their knighthood ceremony. Because of this tradition, during the reign of King Henry IV there originated an order called "Knights of the Bath".16 The term "shampoo" came from Indian language and originally meant "massage".17 English society ladies held vacuuming parties after invention of the horse-drawn electric vacuum in 1901.18
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