How Were Antiseptics Discovered?

In 1861, a doctor named Joseph Lister became a surgeon at a hospital in Glascow, Scotland. At that time, many patients who underwent surgery later developed infections that resulted in death or the loss of a limb. But no one knew why.

Then Lister read an article written by French scientist Louis Pasteur, in which Pasteur said that tiny organisms, called bacteria or germs, were responsible for the spoiling of meat and milk. Since Pasteur said that these germs float in the air, Lister wondered if these same organisms might be responsible for the infections people developed after surgery.

Thus, Lister became the first man to use an antiseptic, a substance that kills germs, to fight infection. He used a chemical called carbolic acid, and made sure that all surgeons cleaned their instruments in this substance before they operated on a patient. And when a patient developed an infection, Lister put the chemical directly on the wound to kill the germs there.

When Lister began his work at the hospital, almost half of all patients who had been operated on died after their operation. After Lister discovered the benefits of antiseptics, the death rate dropped to 15 percent!

Today, no doctor would think of operating on a patient without first washing his hands and his instruments in an antiseptic. And we use antiseptics such as iodine on cuts and scratches to kill germs that might cause infection.