The Evolution Of Hygiene

Written by on March 30, 2013 in Health - No comments | Print this page


bacteriaRunning water, trash collection, deodorant and washing-machines are all part of our privilege of modern hygiene. Were you to consider what living a few centuries ago would be like, your primary objection would likely be the matter of cleanliness. Modern hygiene is not simply a matter of improved technology, but an evolution of how hygiene was understood.

Ancient Hygiene

Practices such as removal of the dead, domestic and personal cleanliness and the elimination of waste have been carried out for millennia, but not for the sake of hygiene per se. Rather, as ritualised or religious practice. For instance, Hebrews bathed so as to cleanse the soul, not especially the body.

Germ Warfare

Only in the late 18th century was filth linked to contagion, but seeing ‘invisible dirt’ as a source of infection took a while still. John Snow investigated the water supply during the London cholera epidemic of 1854. He identified the source as a public water pump, and halted the outbreak by disabling the handle. Before this, no one had thought digging a well only three feet from an old cesspit unsanitary.

In 1847, a physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, noticed the high death rate from puerperal fever among women delivering at the hospital, compared to delivery attended by midwives at homes.

He connected the fever to physicians performing autopsies directly before treating patients. By making doctors wash their hands with chlorinated limewater, childbirth mortality dropped from 18% to 2.2%. However, his theories were laughed at by his colleagues.

‘Germ theory’ was introduced in 1879, which suggested that microorganisms caused many diseases. Thereafter, not only was personal cleanliness valued, but also clean surroundings. General hygiene standards were implemented, including improving the conditions of the working classes, who were called “The Great Unwashed.”

Modern Hygiene

In the 20th century the public became increasingly fanatical about hygiene, often linking it with upholding social standards.

Although eugenics is mostly associated with Nazi Germany, laws related to reproductive hygiene were first implemented in America. Forced sterilisation of the supposedly ‘unfit’ (such as criminals, homosexuals, the mentally ill and racial minorities) was phrased in hygiene rhetoric – ‘cleansing’ the species by preventing the ‘unclean and corrupt’ from reproducing. By the 1930s, two to three thousand forced sterilizations were performed annually in the US.

The social hygiene movement was mostly discredited after 1945, but standards continued to rise. Educational films were commonplace in the classrooms by the 50s. Teenagers were warned that failure to maintain adequate grooming would result in social out-casting.

America’s obsession with hygiene became to be seen as increasingly ‘neurotic’. Part of the ‘rebel against authority’ ethos during the 60s manifested as a rejection of the values of hygiene passed on by parents and social institutions.


Improved hygiene is the main attributor for decreased spread of infectious disease, but has also been linked to reduced tolerance for microorganisms, raising incidents of asthma and allergies. Also, ironically, as late as the 90s studies showed that American families highly conscientious about hygiene, would still leave out more important aspects like hand-washing after the bathroom.

Epidemiologists meeting in 2001 cited this as well as the environmental-damage of cleaning chemicals as signs that we should seek more carefully targeted hygiene, i.e. concentrating on vital areas like hand-washing and cleanliness of food preparation areas, but being more relaxed about sterilising infants’ environments.

The presenters suggested we need totally germ-free environments only in hospitals and residences of the seriously-ill, where patient safety is critical. Thus, the suggestion has been for a more balanced, holistic approach to hygiene.

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Queenie Bates is an avid writer and enjoys researching how how we think about things today, came to be thought about as such.

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /


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