Combating Infection: Antisepsis


Known as tetanus, septicemia, wound fever, and hospital gangrene, sepsis, also known as wound infection, was the most prominent problem of surgery in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Pus or redness would surround the wound causing soarness and, in some cases, sharp pain.  Despite the success of the surgery, patients were always at risk of infection and consequently, death.  Sponge-cleaning and packing wounds with linen tentes were practiced by most surgeons, but to no avail.  In the early 18th century pus was thought to be normal, even adequate, during the healing of wounds.

In most cases, tents and barracks were actually a better place to recover after surgery than hospitals because hospitals were full of infectious bacteria.  Beds, chairs, even the clothes of the surgeons had remnants of blood and pus from previous patients which made it extremely easy fro infection to spread.  Anaesthesia also contributed to infection because wounds were open longer and more instruments could be used that were not sterilized before surgery.


Discoveries made by Louis Pasteur led many to believe that decomposition was due to microbes that could be eliminated via carbolic acid.  Carbolic acid was used as the first antiseptic, also called antiputrefactive, in 1860.  The rise of antiseptic surgery was due to Joseph Lister, and English surgeon, who used an operating room sterilized with carbolic acid, tools cleaned with carbolic acid, meanwhile soaking the wound periodically with carbolic acid.  The results were so effective that in 1871 Lister invented a machine that sprayed carbolic acid over the entire room, much like a sprinkler waters grass.  Overall, antisepsis allowed riskier surgeries to become possible in the later 19th century and well into the future. 

Open Wound Management was a technique which conflicted with antiseptic surgery.