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21st August: Cleanliness is next...

'... he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water... Leviticus 15:8

In the month of April in the year 1857, at the time when Vienna was enjoying the waltzes of Strauss, Ignaz Semmelweis, a young Hungarian obstetrician, saw 57 women die in his midwifery wards in a Vienna hospital. They died from haemolytic streptococcal infection (childbirth fever, puerperal sepsis). Semmelweis noted that the women who died were those who had been examined by medical students who had just come from the post-mortem room. So he ordered that before a doctor or student examined a woman he must wash his hands in water containing chloride of lime. In the month of June following this edict only one woman died. Semmelweis had lighted on the fact that childbirth fever was a bacterial disease, and the bacteria was carried from the post-mortem room to the patient by the doctor or student.

This was a world-shattering discovery, but Semmelweis made one fatal mistake -- he blamed the doctors. The result was that prejudiced obstetricians, jealous superiors and lazy medical students belittled him. He was turned out of the hospital. The strain of continued criticism and the death cries of infected women -- women he knew he could have saved -- so haunted his sensitive mind that it finally broke. He died in a mental institution without ever having received the recognition he deserved.

Over 3,000 years before Semmelweis rediscovered these facts, God gave Moses detailed instructions on cleansing the hands and body and clothes after handling the dead or the infected living. In Leviticus 15 the phrase 'bathe in water' occurs 15 times, and it occurs in other places also. Semmelweis added chloride of lime to the water (and that is not unimportant), and since then there have been many refinements. But the principle of cleansing by washing is basic. God made this clear to Moses, who recorded it. The pity is that for so many centuries it was ignored.

Help us, Lord, to listen to what you teach us,
to acknowledge it as your wisdom and to act on it.

Further reading: Lv 15.


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