Bacteria: Friend or Foe

Most of us probably have negative thoughts when we think about bacteria. We know that diseases are caused by bacteria, and we have been told since childhood that we need to wash our hands to avoid illness. Most of us know that from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries a fourth of all women giving birth in hospitals died of puerperal fever which was an infection spread by unhygienic nurses and doctors. What we may not know is that there was strong social opposition to hand washing during that time. In 1843 Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. campaigned for basic sanitation in hospitals, but was opposed by most of the medical establishment. Dr. Charles Meigs who was a famous American obstetrician responded that “Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean.”

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