Long ago, having even minor surgery was extremely dangerous. Much more dangerous, in fact, than any major surgery you can have today. Prior to the middle of the nineteenth century, almost half of the patients who underwent surgery died as a result. Many of these people survived the actual procedure, but their wound would later become infected and ultimately lead to their death.
These frequent infections occurred because antiseptics did not yet exist, and the medical professionals of the time had no idea about infection control or disinfection. Many doctors believed that the infections were caused by bad air getting into the wound, and they would instruct the nurses to air-out the hospital every day. Meanwhile, doctors would perform surgery without washing their hands and while wearing a coat soiled with another patient’s blood. Many of them purposely wore dirty gowns and coats as a sign of their experience! With conditions like these, it’s no wonder so many patients succumbed to infection after their surgeries.
In the 1860s, a surgeon by the name of Joseph Lister permanently changed the medical world for the better. Drawing from the work of Louis Pasteur, Lister realized that infection could occur when microorganisms were present. In order to prevent harmful, or fatal, infections, Lister began sterilizing medical tools with a carbolic acid mixture. He also instructed other surgeons to wash their hands, wear gloves, and disinfect the patient’s skin prior to surgery. Lister realized that the most effective way of preventing infection was to eliminate microorganisms before they ever had a chance to enter the patient’s body.
After doctors began introducing these antiseptic methods into their surgeries, the survival rate in patients undergoing surgery dramatically rose. While the methods for disinfection have changed, Joseph Lister is still considered to be the father of modern surgery, and his discoveries saved countless lives over the years.
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