...except when they aren't.
Doctors can be vain. There's just something about controlling life and death with one's own hands that leads one to have a sense of overwhelming self-importance. As such, getting a doctor to change their ways can be difficult.
Such was the case in Vienna in the 1820s. Doctors were unable to explain why mortality rates during childbirth had suddenly spiked. We suspect conversations went something like this,
"Hey, Doctor, what's new?"
"Just had another bunch of expectant moms perish at the hands of this mysterious illness. Since our hospital is now doing autopsies, that means a whole bunch of new corpses to examine."
"I know what you mean, between sticking my hands in dead bodies and delivering babies, I'm really overworked. Haven't had time to figure out the baffling mystery of why people keep getting sick."
"Yes, truly baffling! Well, got to go, I still have three more rotting carcasses to rub my hands all over, then I've got to go right to the delivery room."
Finally, a doctor named Ignac Semmelweis came up with the notion that maybe, just maybe, putting one's hands in a dead body then immediately putting one's hands into the birth canal was a less-than-optimal procedure. His solution was simple: Wash your hands after doing an autopsy. You'd think such a reasonable conclusion would lead to hand-washing becoming ubiquitous overnight. However, it's tough for some types of people to adopt new ideas, like with European men and the idea of wearing bathing suits that don't have offensive bulges.
The backlash to Semmelweis' proposal was huge. After all, he had asserted that
1. Doctors' cleanliness was anything less than impeccable
2. Doctors had transfered germs to hundreds of newborns, causing deaths that could have easily been prevented
So, it's not unreasonable to see why Semmelweis' colleagues treated this notion with utter contempt. Serving as the arch-villains of this sad tale were doctors Charles Meigs and Johann Klein. Meigs and Klein asserted that, not only were doctors always perfectly clean merely by existing, hand washing was a complete waste of time and should be abolished. Semmelweis was fired, doctors stopped washing hands entirely, and deaths during childbirth soon tripled. It wasn't until the discovery of germs over 20 years later that Semmelweis' theory was revisited. Estimates say this caused between 5,000-15,000 deaths which could have been avoided with a little bit of soap.