Namely, that shaking hands is not just idiotic but also dangerous. It is said that when Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and few of their compatriots first saw White men shaking hands they broke up in laughter so hard they fell on the ground and rolled around in agony. Shaking hands is something that will seem very odd to a culture who never adopted it, but our hands are also a way to transmit germs from the common cold to the deadly sickness of puerperal fever in pregnant women. A story in the LA Times, Handshakes Are Germ Bombs, says that the Center for Disease Control is now claiming that 80% of all infections are transmitted by our hands. Most of these are the flu and the common cold.
But the story of Ignaz Semmelweis shows that hands can be much more deadly than the flu or the common cold. In 1847, Vienna’s General Hospital obstetrical clinic the Doctors’ wards had three times the mortality rate of Midwives’ wards. Semmelweis noticed that doctors were spending the early morning in the morgue dissecting the corpses of women who had died during the night. They would then go directly into the obstetrical ward and treat patients. He theorized that if the doctors who had been handling the internal organs of women who had died of puerperal fever (childbed sickness) then put their hands on live patients they may be transmitting the sickness to them. Retried Yale University surgeon Sherwin Nuland has written a wonderful book about this.
Semmelweiss’ theory was intuitive, not scientific. It was at least three decades before Louis Pasteur discovered bacteria, the knowledge that proved Semmelweis to have been correct. Semmelweis’ theory that hand washing could prevent puerperal disease was regarded as quackery in 1847. His insistence ended up ruining his career. Pregnant women continued to die. It reminds one of a central theme in Thomas Kuhn’s great book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that the old paradigms don’t die until the scientists who hold them dear have died.*
When I have suggested to others (non medical professionals) that hand shaking spreads flu and colds I have been greeted with much the same sort of skepticism that Semmelweis faced in 1847. Now I have the CDC to back me up.
While my theory was, until now, more intuitive than scientific I did have an explanation of how it all occurs. Cold germs live in the mucous in our noses and eyes, not in our mouths where powerful other forms of bacteria kill them on contact. [kissing is healthier than hand shaking and won’t transfer cold germs if you don’t rub noses] Hands transmit the germs because we all touch our noses and our eyes a lot. When we have a cold that gets the germs on our hands, and shaking hands transmits them to others’ hands and to the rest of their bodies when they touch their nose or eyes.
Further reading: The Scientific Method
*If in the future humans learn the secret of extending life to 200 years or more, will that be a good thing? Well, it might mean that new discoveries will take twice as long to be accepted. Who knows what effect that might have on human progress.