Thursday, April 30, 2009
The concept of infection was unknown until relatively modern times. The first progress in combating infection was made in 1847 by the Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis who noticed that medical students fresh from the dissecting room were causing excess maternal death compared to midwives. Semmelweis, despite ridicule and opposition, introduced compulsory handwashing for everyone entering the maternal wards and was rewarded with a plunge in maternal and fetal deaths, however the Royal Society in the UK still dismissed his advice. Significant progress came following the work of Pasteur, when the British surgeon Joseph Lister began experimenting with using phenol during surgery to prevent infections. Lister was able to quickly reduce infection rates, a reduction that was further helped by his subsequent introduction of techniques to sterilize equipment, have rigorous hand washing and a later implementation of rubber gloves. Lister published his work as a series of articles in The Lancet (March 1867) under the title Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery. The work was groundbreaking and laid the foundations for a rapid advance in infection control that saw modern aseptic operating theatres widely used within 50 years (Lister himself went on to make further strides in antisepsis and asepsis throughout his lifetime).