Cleaning and Sanitising Through the Ages – a Brief History

Due to our now-expanded knowledge of germs and bacteria, current hygiene recommendations are far more advanced. However, these are relatively recent developments. There is, in fact, a surprising history of cleanliness leading up to what we know today.

Ancient Greeks

The ancient Greeks built baths, initially just full of cold water. Later these were developed by Laconians into hot-air baths, which were warmed with hot coals or rocks. They also built large public bathhouses, which were often next to gymnasiums, pools or sports arenas. (Factory)

Roman Bath

Source: Shutterstock

Ancient Romans

The Greek public baths were limited to a series of hip baths. Romans also built bathhouses, including famous structures such as The Baths of Caracalla, completed in 235 CE. They expanded the Greek idea to incorporate a wide array of facilities. Features of Roman bathhouses included a natatio (swimming pool), caldarium (hot room), tepidarium (warm room) and a frigidarium (cool room, the heart of the complex) (Cartwright, 2013)

The Middle Ages

An outbreak of plague, commonly known as The Black Death, reached the Mediterranean ports of southern Europe in 1347 and in three years spread quickly through Europe.

The primary method of combatting the plague was to isolate. Public officials also developed measures of sanitary control to reduce the risks of contracting infectious diseases. They used observation stations, isolation hospitals, and various disinfection procedures.

Hygiene was lacking in the Medieval ages due to an insufficient understanding of germs and bacteria and how they spread. Still, it's clear they at least made an effort to sanitise, which may have contributed to later discoveries. During the Middle Ages, some first steps in public health were made, including attempts to cope with the unhygienic conditions of the cities, quarantining to prevent the spread of diseases, the establishment of hospitals, the providing of medical care and assistance. (Rhodes)

Renaissance Researchers

Girolamo Fracastoro (1478–1553) thought epidemics could come from external pathogens outside of the body. He suggested they could pass between humans by direct or indirect contact.

Paracelsus (1493–1541) was a German-Swiss doctor, scholar and occultist. He initiated using minerals and chemicals in the body. He also thought illness and health relied on the harmony of man with nature, leading to the view that a healthy body needed certain chemical and mineral balances; perhaps chemical remedies could treat some illnesses. (Medical News Today, 2018)

Developments in the 18th and 19th Centuries

In 1752 British physician Sir John Pringle published a book that discussed ventilation in barracks and the provision of latrines. Before this, he had written about jail fever (later thought to be typhus). Here he also advocated for the same needs as well as personal hygiene.

Source: Wikimedia

In 1817 the stethoscope was invented. By mid-century, microscopes had improved enough to allow the examination of micro-organisms. (Robinson, 2011)

Hypochlorous acid, an effective disinfectant, was discovered in 1834 by the French chemist Antoine Jérôme Balard by adding a diluted suspension of mercury oxide in water to a flask of chlorine gas (Balard, 1834). He also named the acid and its compounds. It is debatable, however, when the use of Hypochlorous acid as a disinfectant began. However, some sources suggest it was used to disinfect wounds during World War 1.

Industrial revolution

Due to vast population growth in congested cities with overcrowding and poor sanitation, death rates were high. The Public Health act of 1848 was released after the Poor Law was deemed insufficient and unsatisfactory. This act set up local health boards, investigated sanitary conditions and established a general board of health.

In 1875 the act was developed further to cover housing, sewage and drainage, water supply and contagious diseases.

Through his work in the late 1850s, Louis Pasteur proved the souring of milk was caused by living organisms. This work led to the introduction of antiseptic procedures in surgery by Joseph Lister. Infections and deaths fell considerably. Surgeons could operate more slowly and confidently on patients, which led to even more discoveries.

Florence Nightingale's feats in the Crimean War gave the female nursing role new respect. Many of the nursing improvements she advocated already existed. However, her training school at St Thomas's Hospital provided a model for many. (Robinson, 2011)

20th Century

WHO was established in 1948 and absorbed the L'Office International d'Hygiène Publique. The job of this Parisian board was to receive notification of communicable, severe diseases from participating countries, transmit this information to the member countries, and study and develop sanitary conventions quarantine regulations on shipping and train travel. (Rhodes)

Many sources suggest hand sanitiser was invented around this time (the mid-1900s). Although alcohol has been used for sterilisation purposes as early as 1363 (Disinfection, Sterilisation and Preservation Fifth Edition, 2001)

Lupe Hernandez, a nursing student in Bakersfield, California, in 1966, has been referred to as the inventor of hand sanitiser by many sources.

But an investigation into this 'fact' failed to turn up any trace of Hernandez or any evidence of a U.S. patent for hand sanitiser under his name from the 1960s. There are many other suggestions as to who 'exactly' invented hand sanitiser, but it seems there is no one conclusion. (Huddleston, 2020)

21st Century

Hand sanitisers, of course, are now commonplace, especially with the current coronavirus pandemic requiring a more constant need to remain safe and sanitise. Relatively recent developments have also allowed the stabilising of HOCI, so it can be used as an alcohol-free alternative that is kinder to the skin. Disinfection techniques such as portals and foggers have also been developed to combat the spread of germs and bacteria in hard-to-reach places and on clothes and items.

So that's a brief history of hygiene. It's almost impossible to place every development in time towards the technology and sanitisers available today. Still, it's interesting to know that washing and hygiene practises were undertaken even in the classical period (if only in ice cold baths)


Balard, A. J. (1834).

Retrieved from Cartwright, M. (2013, May 02). Roman Baths.

Disinfection, Sterilisation and Preservation Fifth Edition. (2001). In Disinfection, Sterilisation and Preservation Fifth Edition. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.

Factory, P. (n.d.). How Ancient Greek Hygiene Was Similar To And Different From Today. Retrieved from Past Factory

Huddleston, T. (2020). The history of hand sanitiser—how the coronavirus staple went from mechanic shops to consumer shelves. Retrieved from CNBC

Retrieved from Lauren Cox, A. M. (2009). Med Page Today The Top 10 Medical Advances of the Decade.

Medical News Today. (2018, November). What was medieval and Renaissance medicine? Retrieved from Medical News Today

Rhodes, P. (n.d.). Public Health. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica

Robinson, B. (2011). Victorian Medicine - From Fluke to Theory. Retrieved from BBC History