Background And History

Health Hygiene & Sanitation

Lesson 12 : Hygiene

Background And History


The word Hygiene is derived from Hygeia, the goddess of health in Greek mythology. She is represented as a beautiful woman holding in her hand a bowl from which a serpent is drinking. In the Greek mythology, the serpent testifies the art of healing.


An early leader in Greek medicine was Aesculapius (1200 BC). Aesculapius bore two daughters - Hygeia and Panacea. The medical historian, Douglas Guthrie reminds a legend in that Hygeia was worshipped as the goddess of health and Panacea as the goddess of medicine. Panacea and Hygeia gave rise to dynasties of healers (curative medicine) and hygienists (preventive medicine) with different philosophies. Thus the dichotomy between curative medicine and preventive medicine began early and we know it remains true today. Hygeia (prevention) is at present fashionable among the intellectuals; but Panacea (cure) gets the cash.

Evidences of Earliest Hygienic Practices:

Vishnu Purana and Manusmriti mention bathing as one of the five nitya karmas (daily duties) of Hindus. Not doing so, is a sin. These codes were based on the notion of ritual purity and were not informed by an understanding of the causes of diseases and their modes of transmission. However, even if by accident, ritual purity codes did improve hygiene from an epidemiological point of view.

In the 18th Century, Dr John Snow convincingly showed that cholera disease spreads due to contamination of water bodies with human faeces. This resulted in origin of flush toilets and made toilets as indoor and private as possible from the prevalent practice of outdoor and open-air defecation.

Islam also placed a strong emphasis on hygiene. Other than the need to be ritually clean for the daily prayer, there are a large number of other hygiene related rules governing the lives of Muslims.

Last modified: Monday, 23 April 2012, 10:32 AM