Hygieia: Protector of the Infection Preventionist

by Erica Mitchell | March 30 2022 | Women's History Month | 0 Comments

Hygieia-01If those of us involved in the world of infection control and prevention lived in Ancient Greece, we would have surely found a home in the followers of Hygieia, the mythical goddess of cleanliness and sanitation and the origin of the word hygiene. While her sisters were worrying about healing, recuperation, and remedy, Hygieia was working to prevent illness by cleaning and advocating sanitary practices. (Sound familiar?) In today's post, the last in our series recognizing Women's History Month, we'll take a look at this figure, what she represented, and what she can teach us about the origins of the field of infection prevention.

The ancient Greek pantheon have a well-established legacy in the Western world despite losing their religious following millennia ago. Not only do they survive as figures and inspiration in the arts and philosophy, many of their names persist in the language of sciences, including medicine. We have all read about breakthroughs in drug therapies - a word we get from the Greek term Therapeutae for the caretakers of the temples of Asclepius, the god of medicine. You will surely recognize one such therapeutai: Hippocrates.

According to Greek mythology, the children of Asclepius were also engaged in the practices of healing and health. One of his daughters, Panacea, gives her name to a word we still use today to mean a "universal remedy." She, her father, and sister Hygieia were invoked during the earliest form of the Hippocratic Oath, which begins with the famous words "First, do no harm."

Hygieia became an important goddess to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome during the massive Plague of Athens (430-427 BC) and Rome (293 BC). Why the goddess of cleanliness and sanitation? During this time period, physicians had only just begun to operate under the Hippocratic theory that disease was caused by nature rather than by the gods. While they did not yet understand the germ theory of disease, they tried to use observation, record-keeping, and experimentation to solve health crises. This theory was far from perfect, but it had just enough grounding in what would become the scientific method that their observations shed some light on how to prevent disease. One of the most important realizations to emerge was the role of cleanliness and sanitation. No longer were individuals depending purely on praying to their gods to avoid sickness, they were also taking their own precautions to keep themselves healthy.

There are many advances in hygiene used by the Greeks that were then lost during the Dark Ages and only rediscovered during the Renaissance. Public baths with moving water treated with ingredients to keep it clean. Special areas in the home for washing and cleaning, separate from living and cooking areas. Laundry treatments with chemicals selected for their bleaching and cleaning properties. Indoor plumbing that directed waste outside of the city. The Ancient Greeks also observed that the caretakers of the sick would also become sick, leading to the practice of keeping ill people separate from the community, often in a temple dedicated to Asclepius.

Today, Hygieia is most closely associated with the pharmacy, with her characteristic bowl and serpent a recurring motif in the pharmaceutical world and even replacing the mortar and pestle as the sign of a pharmacy in many countries in Europe. However, her original purpose was to prevent illness through cleanliness and sanitation, a life-saving measure we all take very seriously today. 

The Golden Age of Microbiology

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in March 2019 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy and comprehensiveness.