Medicine and Disease


When were antiseptics introduced to surgery?

Antiseptics, which prevent infections, were introduced in the middle of the nineteenth century, and by the end of the century were in widespread use. The introduction in 1846 of anesthetics such as ether and chloroform handled the problem of pain during surgery. But even after successful operations, patients were dying or becoming permanently disabled from infections contracted while in the hospital. These infections, which often became epidemic inside the medical facilities, included tetanus, gangrene, and septicemia. In 1846 Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818–1865), who was practicing at a Vienna hospital, concluded that infection, in this case puerperal (or childbirth) fever, was coming from inside the hospital ward. His analysis was met with strong rebuttal. While he began practicing antisepsis (cleanliness to reduce infection) and his statistics showed a decrease in mortality rates, the methods did not gain acceptance in the medical community.

Nearly two decades later, in 1864, English surgeon Joseph L. Lister (1827–1912) became interested in French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur’s (1822–1895) work with bacteria. While practicing surgery in Glasgow, Lister replicated Pasteur’s experiments and concluded that the germ theory applied to hospital diseases. In order to stave off inflammation and infections in his patients, Lister began working with solutions containing carbolic acid, which kills germs. Observing favorable results, Lister reported his findings in 1867 in the British journal of medicine Lancet. Many physicians still rejected Lister’s claims that antisepsis could reduce the danger of infection. Nevertheless, the medical community began adopting these methods. By the turn of the century, not only had these principles saved lives, they had transformed the way doctors practice medicine: Since doctors could not ensure necessary cleanliness in their patients’ homes, hospitals became the preferred place to treat all patients—not just the poor or the very sick.


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