This is one of the classic stories of public health, an issue that most U.S. history and world history texts tend to ignore, to the detriment of the students and the classroom outcomes.
In the 1850s a Hungarian doctor and professor of obstetrics named Ignaz Semmelweis (pictured at left) ordered his interns at the Viennese Lying-in Hospital to wash their hands after performing autopsies and before examining new mothers. The death rate plummeted from 22 out of 200 to 2 out of 200, prompting the following reception from one of Europe’s most respected medical practitioners:
“It may be that it [Semmelweis’ procedure] does contain a few good principles, but its scrupulous application has presented such difficulties that it would be necessary, in Paris for instance, to place in quarantine the personnel of a hospital during the great part of a year, and that, moreover, to obtain results that remain entirely problematical.”
– Dr. Charles Dubois (Parisian obstetrician), memo to the French Academy
September 23, 1858
Semmelweiss’ superiors shared Dubois’ opinion; when the Hungarian physician insisted on defending his theories, they forced him to resign his post on the faculty.
Update, September 26, 2007: Stephen J. Dubner at the Freakonomics blog pointed to a video, to an essay by Semmelweis, and to a column he and Steven D. Levitt had done earlier on handwashing. Maybe things aren’t as good as we had hoped.