Prior to the late nineteenth century, there was a lack of unity pertaining to how to combat deadly diseases such as yellow fever and typhoid fever. The simple action of hand washing was not implemented into everyday practice since the mode of disease transmission was not known at the time. The origin of disease was highly debated during this time period due to the lack of medical knowledge and widespread belief of quack ideologies. The Progressive Era, theory of bacteriology, and increased medical knowledge contributed to hand washing becoming common knowledge to prevent the spread of disease. The intersections of these movements and ideas have contributed to contemporary hand washing practices. Despite the knowledge that led to modern day hand washing techniques, it took decades for the habit to find its way into public health protocol in the United States.

These questions will be used to illustrate the development of hand washing practices from the late 1800s to the present:

  1. What major events led to the incorporation of hand washing into public health and everyday habit?
  2. How has hand washing helped decrease the amount of waterborne disease?


This website is a supplement to the Lyman Briggs senior seminar course (LB492) that focused on what role water plays in society. The readings and in class discussions throughout the course demonstrated the broad applications that water has in society. Water’s role throughout time has shaped the way in which we perceive it in present day. The social, political, and scientific aspects and the way they intersect with one another have helped shaped the habit of contemporary handwashing. For this project themes of health, credibility, sanitation, and fear occur throughout the multiple events that influences the history of handwashing. The incorporation of handwashing into public health can be followed by exploring the pages of this website. 

For more information about LB492 senior seminar see: