A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter VIII
Nineteenth-century medicine
Lister and antiseptic surgery
Meantime, in a different though allied field of medicine there had been a complementary growth that led to immediate results of even more practical importance. I mean the theory and practice of antisepsis in surgery. This advance, like the other, came as a direct outgrowth of Pasteur's fermentation studies of alcoholic beverages, though not at the hands of Pasteur himself. Struck by the boundless implications of Pasteur's revelations regarding the bacteria, Dr. Joseph Lister (the present Lord Lister), then of Glasgow, set about as early as 1860 to make a wonderful application of these ideas. If putrefaction is always due to bacterial development, he argued, this must apply as well to living as to dead tissues; hence the putrefactive changes which occur in wounds and after operations on the human subject, from which blood-poisoning so often follows, might be absolutely prevented if the injured surfaces could be kept free from access of the germs of decay.

In the hope of accomplishing this result, Lister began experimenting with drugs that might kill the bacteria without injury to the patient, and with means to prevent further access of germs once a wound was freed from them. How well he succeeded all the world knows; how bitterly he was antagonized for about a score of years, most of the world has already forgotten. As early as 1867 Lister was able to publish results pointing towards success in his great project; yet so incredulous were surgeons in general that even some years later the leading surgeons on the Continent had not so much as heard of his efforts. In 1870 the soldiers of Paris died, as of old, of hospital gangrene; and when, in 1871, the French surgeon Alphonse Guerin, stimulated by Pasteur's studies, conceived the idea of dressing wounds with cotton in the hope of keeping germs from entering them, he was quite unaware that a British contemporary had preceded him by a full decade in this effort at prevention and had made long strides towards complete success. Lister's priority, however, and the superiority of his method, were freely admitted by the French Academy of Sciences, which in 1881 officially crowned his achievement, as the Royal Society of London had done the year before.

By this time, to be sure, as everybody knows, Lister's new methods had made their way everywhere, revolutionizing the practice of surgery and practically banishing from the earth maladies that hitherto had been the terror of the surgeon and the opprobrium of his art. And these bedside studies, conducted in the end by thousands of men who had no knowledge of microscopy, had a large share in establishing the general belief in the causal relation that micro-organisms bear to disease, which by about the year 1880 had taken possession of the medical world. But they did more; they brought into equal prominence the idea that, the cause of a diseased condition being known, it maybe possible as never before to grapple with and eradicate that condition.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.