A few weeks ago, I’d published Listerine… For Your Floors, For Your Crotch, For Your Mouth and humorously discussed how the mouthwash we know today was actually named after Joseph Lister, now known as the “father of antiseptic surgery”. Listerine, the product, was once presented as a solution to clean your floors, your scalp, and even gonorrhea.
Today, I’ll introduce Louis Pasteur — an artist turned chemist born 1822 in Dole, France, who inspired Lister — and is best known for his explanation on how heat treatment made foods safer… from which the term pasteurization is derived. He is remembered for his breakthroughs in the causes and prevention of diseases, and created the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax.
In the 1860s, mortality rate in the hospitals was about 12% of all patients, and 50% for amputees. Louis Pasteur’s research showed that the growth of micro-organisms was responsible for spoiling beverages such as beer and wine. This led to the idea that micro-organisms infecting animals and humans cause disease.
Joseph Lister read Pasteur’s work on fermentation and questioned whether micro-organisms might cause infections in wounds in the same way that it ruined wine and decided to experiment with using one of Pasteur’s proposed techniques, that of exposing the wound to chemicals.
In 1865, he began to perform antiseptic operations with his instruments and hands cleaned with carbolic acid, and wounds covered in a bandage soaked in 5% carbolic acid solution and the rate of infection was greatly reduced.
He’d invented a machine, known as the donkey engine, which could spray a fine mist of carbolic solution in the air of the operating room (later exchanged for a steam spray).
Once antiseptic was widely adopted death rates in hospitals fell to an average of 5% from a previous 12%.
You young men—doctors and scientists of the future—do not let yourselves be tainted by apparent skepticism; nor discouraged by the sadness of certain hours that creep over nations. Do not become angry at your opponents, for no scientific theory has ever been accepted without opposition. Live in the serene peace of libraries and laboratories. Say to yourselves, first, “What have I done for my instruction?” And as you gradually advance, “What am I accomplishing?” Until the time comes when you may have the immense happiness of thinking that you have contributed in some way to the welfare and progress of mankind. (Vallery-Radot 1901, vol. 2, pp. 297–298)