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Cleaning the hospital

John Howard bringing water and fresh air into a prison, c. 1787.

John Howard bringing water and fresh air into a prison, c. 1787.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Most visitors to hospitals in past centuries were repulsed by the smell of the institutions. On his tour of European hospitals in the 1770s and 1780s, John Howard noted many doctors covering their noses when making their rounds. Crowded and unsanitary, hospitals were regarded as dangerous places in an age when people suspected disease was caused by miasma, or bad air. As a result, staff at hospitals spent much time cleaning patients and the institution and improving ventilation.

By the 1850s the cleaning duties of nurses had been removed. In their place, full-time cleaners were employed to scour the floors and launder the linen. The costs of hospital cleaning in these years only increased. Most hospitals introduced baths and running water. Over the remainder of the century, hospitals were progressively deodorised, with the introduction of soaps and more effective cleaning agents and disinfectants. Sanitation and ventilation equipment were also improved. The introduction of aseptic surgery in the late 1800s and early 1900s made surgical treatment more effective and survival more likely.

The question of cleanliness today remains central to public debates of hospital services. Most visitors look to a hospital’s floors when determining its adequacy. To many individuals, in the age of MRSA and hospital superbugs, a clean hospital is a good hospital.


Related links

External links:


V Smith, Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)


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