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Antiseptic Surgery

engraving of patient awaiting operation (Cheselden)

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Until Lister introduced the use of 'antiseptic' surgery (in 1867) surgeons were largely unaware that the high death rate during operations was caused by the spreading of infection from the surgeons, attendants, and environment to the patient on the table. Lister found that spraying the immediate area of the operation with carbolic acid reduced the death rate. It was unpleasant
for the surgeon to operate under a fine mist of carbolic, but it changed the face of surgery. For the first time surgeons could successfully undertake operations in the body cavities.

It took decades for all surgeons to accept that infection was spread by bacteria rather than growing spontaneously in the wound. Even those who accepted the basis of antiseptic surgery took some time to realise the need for thorough cleanliness, and for a time operations continued in the
dangerous wooden surroundings of old operating theatres on wooden tables, with wooden handled instruments, and carried out, on occasion, still by surgeons attired in top hat and frock coat!

It gradually became apparent that, rather than killing infections by antiseptic procedures, it was better to use the 'aseptic' method, by which operations took place in a sterile environment in which pathogenic micro-organisms were excluded.



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