Progress: a bar of soap

I keep a bar of soap in my desk at the office as a reminder of progress in medical care. It was my grandfather’s idea.

My grandfather was a prominent internist and professor of physician in Vienna before he was expelled by the Nazis in 1938. He emigrated to the United States where he was a well respected researcher and teacher in New York City. 

When I graduated from college and was planning to start medical school, we had a small family gathering to celebrate. My grandmother gave me a medical dictionary with a note inscribed on the inside cover about the value of careful use of language. My grandfather gave me a bar of soap.

I thanked my grandmother the dictionary, which I greatly appreciated (and still have). But I was puzzled by the bar of soap. For all his clinical expertise and superb medical reputation, my grandfather was neither warm nor fuzzy, and his interpersonal skills were not his strong suit. It was often hard to understand how to interpret what he said or did. Somewhat tentatively, I thanked him for the soap and asked if it had any specific meaning.

“Yes,” he said. “I don’t want you to forget how lucky you are. When I started in medicine, we did not have rubber gloves. Before we did rectal exams on patients or handled bodily fluids, we would rub our fingernail on the bar of soap we always kept either in a pocket or in our medical bag. That kept fecal particles or other contaminated materials from getting trapped under our fingernails and spreading disease. That bar of soap should help you remember the value of basic cleanliness and the importance of time-proven technologies.”



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