When Were Antiseptics First Used?
Antisepsis was recommended by Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis in 1847 but, tragically, he was ignored. Antiseptics were first used in 1865 by a surgeon called Joseph Lister, in London. He was helped by his knowledge of the work of Louis Pasteur, a French doctor, who had discovered that putrefaction (rotting) was caused by live bacteria and not by a chemical process.
Lister thought that bacteria could be destroyed before they entered a wound and poisoned it. He first tried the treatment on a compound fracture. Carbolic acid was applied to the wound in the hope that this would provide a barrier against the germs in the atmosphere. The experiment was successful and led to a great advance in surgery. Various kinds of antiseptics came into general use to combat bacteria.
The widespread introduction of antiseptic surgical methods followed the publishing of the paper Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery in 1867 by Joseph Lister. In this paper, Lister advocated the use of carbolic acid (phenol) as a method of ensuring that any germs present were killed. Some of this work was anticipated by:
- Ancient Greek physicians Galen (circa 130–200) and Hippocrates (circa 400 BC) and Sumerian clay tablets dating from 2150 BC that advocate the use of similar techniques.
- Medieval surgeons Hugh of Lucca, Theoderic of Servia, and his pupil Henri de Mondeville were opponents of Galen’s opinion that pus was important to healing, which had led ancient and medieval surgeons to let pus remain in wounds. They advocated draining and cleaning wound lips with wine, dressing the wound after suturing it if necessary, and leaving the dressing on for ten days, soaking it in warm wine all the while, before changing it. Their theories were bitterly opposed by Galenist Guy de Chauliac and others trained in the classical tradition.
- Joseph Smith alluded to the use of alcohol as an antiseptic in February 1833, when he wrote what is now section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, popularly known as the “Word of Wisdom”. Specifically, verse 7 states: “And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.”
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who published The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever in 1843
- Florence Nightingale, who contributed substantially to the report on the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army (1856–1857), based on her earlier work
- Ignaz Semmelweis, who published his work The Cause, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever in 1861, summarizing experiments and observations since 1847