It was at the Santa Monica Hospital, a good place that saved my life one time. The lecture was in about the year 1982. They had a clinic of family medicine that served as my de facto health insurance policy at the time. Maybe the lecture was just a clinic service, but I seem to remember that it had something to do with the local day care community. It was a lecture about hand washing, the importance of it and the proper technique, with a healthy dose of myth dispelling thrown in by a conscientious doctor-speaker.
I recalled a conversation that I’d had with my mother when I was a small boy. She’d seen my wash my hands and noticed that I didn’t use soap. She counseled me that I must use soap, because soap killed the germs. My hands hadn’t been very dirty to begin with, and I’d washed them very thoroughly under the running water, and frankly they looked and felt very clean to me, and I told her so. I gave her my opinion: the water had killed the germs just fine. No drama ensued, that was about it really, but for some reason the entire little conversation stuck with me over the years. I can still see and hear it. Memory is a funny thing.
So I was very interested in attending the hand washing lecture. I tend to believe that I am right most of the time, and I was probably looking for validation for my previous endorsement of water-only hand washing for hands that weren’t really dirty.
Well, I got it, kind of. The lecture was fascinating. The doctor spoke to us like we were adults, unlike most doctors who treat anyone who doesn’t have an MD as though they were children, or even retarded children. Killing germs, he explained, was not the goal, forget killing germs. Soap will not kill germs. Hot water will kill them, but the water needs to be something like one hundred and seventy five degrees Fahrenheit, which of course would scald the skin right off your hands. It’s the mechanical action of the water that cleans your hands. Warm water and soap are recommended, they enhance the mechanical action of the water by reducing its surface tension, which has the effect of making your hands get wetter, getting a deeper rinse-off of the whatever it is that makes them “dirty.”
Not exactly a validation of my boyish practicing of science without a license, but it was nice to recall a relatively calm conversation with my mother long ago, and it still is. My memories of her happily smiling are shamefully few.