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Wash your hands

That's the new keybaird (keyboard) ordered. In a week's 0.r1i222222220 (-- that's younger cat Madelaine helping me type) time I will no longer be pecking a blank key thinking it is an "o" when it is actually its equally blank-faced "i". Or typing "r" instead of "t".

Yesterday's weather was pretty foul, so it was an indoor day. Reading, thinking, organising.

A day when I started to create a new systematic way of dealing with the DNA matches in my family tree which I have managed to use to confirm all the links in the chain to another person. The most distant one has fourteen intermediate steps. The person connected is a sixth cousin twice removed. Our shared ancestors were born in the 1600s. In total, I have made the match with forty-eight cousins of varying distances of consanguinity and geography. So far.

One of the things the main database I subscribe to can do for me is to show for a link I may be investigating, matches to other people's DNA tests that we both match. That may assist in finding people who are missing from the investigation so far by letting see us more clearly fragments that may be present, and verifiable in other people's trees.

That's the key-word, verifiable. When you look at research others have undertaken, you will regularly find that they have provided no information about the source that they used to add a name to their family tree. It's no good just looking for, say, the birth of Stewart Stevenson (me in other words) using what you might think is a reasonable range of possible birth dates.

You will find twenty-three possible answers spanning the seven years either side of my actual birth date. And one of them has an additional first name that you might know is one that also applies to me. If you are very well informed, you might also spot that that one birth is registered in the right place. But it ain't me. Indeed, I am not on the list of twenty-three possibles. I won't bother to explain why. The bottom line is that if someone made the wrong assumption but recorded where they got the data, then it can be checked by others. The error can be spotted and corrected.

So when one sets out to find who the connecting people are that DNA testing shows share common ancestry actually are, it is a non-trivial task. If you like crosswords, sudoku or other mind games, family research waits for you. And the bigger you tree gets, the more research is waiting for you.

If you can find the evidence that has caused someone to state that Thomas Berry (he's my great great great great great great great grandfather - yep seven greats), born in about 1626 in Ceres, Fife had his death recorded in 1665 at St Andrew by the Wardrobe, London, Middlesex, England, I would be extremely grateful. If true, I am descended from William the Conqueror. Sounds like someone else's research is a bit of triumph of hope over reality.

Much better is that I am the fifteenth cousin twenty-two times removed of the wife of a third cousin once removed of a second cousin of Robert the Bruce. Aren't we all? There's a web site that works out this rubbish for you. I suspect this actually tells me that I more distantly connected to Robert the Bruce than almost everybody. But I can still claim that he's in my family tree. But that doesn't make it correct. Or useful.

And taking that word, "verifiable", into our present pandemic world how about soap? It's a product that has been around since about 2,500 BC. Time magazine wrote this year (;

"The first documented use of soap is described on a cuneiform tablet found in Girsu. [...] the tablet was written 4,500 years ago."

Initially used to remove visible dirt from materials, it came to be used as a key part of Roman ablutions 2,000 years ago.

But the breakthrough for health use came in the 1850s in the Crimean War. An article in the most recent edition of E&T ( reports that;

"21,827 British troops that fell in the war, 4,602 were either killed in action or died of wounds, while 17,225 died of infectious diseases such as typhus, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery."

Florence Nightingale became a hero by reducing mortality in hospitals in the Crimea by 90%. How? By good basic hygiene; opening the doors of her hospital, operating what we now call social distancing, and by handwashing with soap.

When the history of this pandemic is written, it will certainly laud the human efforts of staff in the NHS, essential workers who kept us fed and supported, scientists and statisticians who help us understand, but most of all, our re-discovery of an ancient barrier to infection - handwashing with soap.

As a youngster, I was exposed to a range of pathogens and infestations. They all entered into our house by the front door borne in on the patients who ten times a week attended my father's surgeries. Subjectively, I seem to have a reasonably robust immune system. I ascribe that to the build-up of antibodies in my body that came from that exposure.

But maybe my health today was due to something else. Before sitting down to a meal, the interrogatory "have you washed your hands?" would be addressed to myself and my siblings.

For the pandemic, I now carry a small vial of hand-cleaning alcohol to spray onto and then rub all over my hands after touching any communal surface. Effective, but many times the cost per washing than simple soap and water.

If we learn anything from this pandemic for the future as a society, it is to educate people into actively washing their hands frequently.

Perhaps the need for the state to make that easy through the provision of soap and water in public places.

I want to hear public service announcements regularly topping up our alertness to good hygiene. And know it's a constant encouragement in schools from P1 to S6.

The cleanest place in a public building is likely to be the toilet. The dirtiest, the front door handle.

Before antibiotics, soap saved more lives than anything else. And may still do.

"Have you washed your hands?"

Soap and water - verified to save lives.


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