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The Evolution of Antiseptics

A Glimpse Back at the Progression of Antiseptics Over the Centuries

The printing press. The light bulb. The automobile. The computer. The Internet. The iPhone. Pizza delivery.

All of these cutting edge inventions have changed the world and extraordinarily enhanced the way we live. Yet none can rival the remarkable global impact that antiseptics have had on the Planet Earth.

It was the Greeks who declared one of the world’s first wars on germs and gave us one of the world’s greatest inventions. The physician Hippocrates discovered the phenomenal natural wonder that would be termed antiseptics by mixing wine and vinegar in the dressing of wounds around 400 B.C. Thus was born the world’s first process of destroying and debilitating microorganisms.

The world’s medical community has been studying the human body’s best defense against infections for centuries. In the thirteenth century, the surgeon Theodoric of Bologna advised dipping dressings in wine to ward off the development of pus in wounds. In the 1700s, English physician Sir John Pringle helped coin the word antiseptic in a series of papers entitled Experiments Upon Septic and Antiseptic Substances. Genevieve Charlotte d’Arconville introduced the chloride found in mercury as an effective antiseptic in 1766. Bernard Courtois informed the world of the remarkable power of iodine in treating wounds in 1811.

Antiseptics’ journey to becoming our greatest weapon in the battle against infections hasn’t been without hiccups. Antiseptics failed to prevent the almost certain infection of wounds after surgeries, leading to amputations becoming the unfortunate leading measure of the times to eliminating infections in the 1800s. And amputations themselves had a 40-45 percent mortality rate.

Meanwhile, a particularly brutal infection called puerperal fever (a streptococcus infection of the uterus that struck women who had just gave birth) invaded maternity wards, spiking maternal death rates and robbing newborns of their mothers. The fight against puerperal fever led Scottish physician Alexander Gordon – who deduced doctors who handled different patients were accidentally causing infections to expecting mothers – to introduce the medical code that obstetricians should wash their hands and clothes before treating patients. The process of sterilizing surgeries took another great leap forward in 1847 when Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweiss ordered his students at Vienna General Hospital to wash their hands in an antiseptic chloride solution of chlorinated lime (today called calcium hypochlorite) before examining patients. Semmelweiss’ reasoning was that tiny particles could be transmitted from body to body and cause disease.

Maternal death rates soon nosedived from 18 percent to 1 and carbolic soap became mandatory in all hospitals. Semmelweiss didn’t know it at the time, but his studies would prove the existence and antidote to airborne microorganisms.

In 1864, Louis Pasteur proved Semmelweiss’ theory by successfully demonstrating that microscopic bacteria caused diseases. The hypothesis is known today as “the germ theory of disease.” Just a year later, physician Joseph Lister –after reading Pasteur’s article on germ theory – put the theory into use in the successful operation of a compound fracture of the leg in 1865.

Still, the world’s medical community, especially doctors in the United States, was skeptical of a theory that sounded like science fiction to many. It wasn’t until the 1890s when German bacteriologist Heinrich Koch equivocally proved that germs cause disease. In 1890, American doctor William Halsted, chief of surgery at John Hopkins Medical School, pioneered the use of rubber gloves in surgery.

Antiseptics evolved greatly in the 20th century as their infection fighting power was strengthened greatly by the introduction of antibiotics, penicillin, iodine and boric acid, and the adoption of aseptic methods such as sterilization, which prevented bacteria from living in given areas. Further study outlawed carbolic acid as an antiseptic. Operating rooms around the world became germ-proof. Antiseptics soon became the most invaluable weapon in the war on infections and the medical community and society’s go-to superhero in the fight against germs and infections.

As doctor D. Bryson Delavan eloquently stated timelessly back in 1876 following a landmark surgery in which a young boy’s life was saved thanks to the use of antibiotics, “There, visibly demonstrated before us, was the triumphant proof that gone forever was the old regime of surgical uncleanliness, infection and death.”

Let’s see the iPad have the same kind of invaluable impact antiseptics have had on the world.

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