Antisepsis and Infectious Agents


(Photo Credit: The Drug Book)

Nineteenth century surgeons managed to defeat a major challenger to their practice: pain. The development of anesthesia made it possible for doctors to travel deeper into the human body and take larger risks with invasive surgeries. More complex surgeries meant a higher chance of developing an infection, and unfortunately, that was still an undefeated opponent to a speedy recovery. Joseph Lister, a British surgeon at the time, studied the works of the French chemist, Louis Pasteur. One of Louis Pasteur’s most famous questions regarded his curiosity over spoiled wine. His inquiry led him to focus on spontaneous regeneration, the notion that, “Living things could arise from nonliving matter” (Parker 149). Dr. Lister was mesmerized with the chemist’s findings and began his own experiments which would lead him to be remembered as the pioneer of antiseptic surgery.

Carbolic acid (Phenol), a compound originally used to process sewage, was Joseph Lister’s weapon of choice (Barnett 92). He washed his hands and instruments in carbolic acid and even developed a machine that let out a continuous stream of carbolic acid steam (Barnett 93). In 1865, he decided to test his theory on wound infection with carbolic acid on a patient. An eleven year old boy was brought to him after a cart had been overturned onto his body. The young boy suffered from a compounded tibia, a wound that became easily infected due to the bone’s breaking of the skin (Barnett 92). Dr. Lister soaked lint in the acid and dressed the boy’s wounds each day. He noticed that the skin around the wound was irritated by the carbolic solution, but that no infection had set in. After six weeks of recovery, the boy managed to walk out of the hospital and lived once again with two functional legs (Barnett 92).  Joseph Lister’s practices led to a hefty decline in the number of patient’s who died due to post-operative infection. Even with his promising findings though, there remained continuous disagreements within the medical world regarding infectious disease (Barnett 93). Some physicians found the Listerian surgical methodology to be tiresome and inconvenient. The acid is a skin irritant and could cause the surgeons and his assistants great discomfort if they did not have gloves readily available to them (Barnett 94). This eventually led to greater innovations, and by the end of the 19th century, most of Lister’s practices were replaced.


(Photo Credit: Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History)

Joseph was not the only individual to suggest hospital and sterilization reforms at the time. For instance, Florence Nightingale advocated against unkempt and disorderly hospitals, claiming that it infringed upon the sick’s ability to heal (Barnett 90). The chemist, William Henry, advised that doctors and surgeons alike begin wearing sterile clothing when seeing to the needs of a patient (Pickover 212). Lastly, Semmelweis, whom we have already learned about, advised his staff to wash their hands before and after examinations (Pickover 212).  You may have heard the word “aseptic” in the medical world before. So what is the difference between antiseptic and aseptic surgery then? Joseph Lister was the leading figure in antiseptic surgery, meaning that the focus is placed on keeping germs out of a wound (Barnett 116). This means that it did not demand a special operating environment and that patient’s homes could be utilized just as easily as an operating theater. On the other hand, aseptic surgery aims to remove all bacteria before it can come into contact with the patient (Pickover 212). This means that high standards are placed upon the environment that a surgical procedure takes place in. Today, hospitals practice aseptsis, but Lister’s original reforms helped spark the medical world’s battle against infectious agents.

(If that didn’t make you thankful for modern medicine, then I don’t know what will!)

Until Next Time



-If you want to read my article about Semmelweis and childbed fever:

-If you want to read more about Joseph Lister’s life then I highly recommend the work by Lindsey Fitzharris, The Butchering Art.



  • Barnett, Richard. Crucial Interventions: An Illustrated Treatise on the Principles and Practices of Nineteenth-Century Surgery. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.
  • Gerald, Micheal. The Drug Book. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2013.
  • Parker, Steve. Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History. New York: DK Publishing, 2016.
  • Pickover, Clifford. The Medical Book. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2012.



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