Medicine At The Museum: Explore the Tragic Life and Death of an Early Pioneer of Hand Washing

The CDC has said one of the best ways to lower your risk of coronavirus infection is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly (for at least 20 seconds, or as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice).

That hand washing advice may feel like a new and intense part of our daily lives, but it has a long and hidden history. 

In this installment of Medicine @ the Museum, we will examine the biomedical history of hand washing in an interview with UMMA’s own Academic Education & Curatorial Assistant, Katy Holihan. Katy is an expert on the history of hygiene, and a PhD candidate in German Studies at the University of Michigan with a Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies. Together we will look at a painting by Robert Thom in Michigan Medicine’s History of Medicine collection titled, “Semmelweis- Defender of Motherhood,” and explore the tragic life and death of an early pioneer of hand washing.

Featured Image

Robert Thom, Semmelweis-Defender of Motherhood, from "The History of Medicine," circa 1952, oil on canvas, From the collection of Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan, Gift of Pfizer, Inc., UMHS.26

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Vladimir Yankilevsky, Head I, 1972, etching on paper, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Carl Proffer, 1980/2.243.24. 

Medicine @ The Museum

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About the Author

Amanda Respess is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan, where she is also completing a Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies. Her dissertation uses shipwreck artifacts from the premodern Maritime Silk Road to explore the global history of medicine. Amanda was a Rackham Public Engagement Fellow at UMMA and is currently a Curatorial Research Center Assistant and Art Handler.

Author Image: Vinod Menon