How Did We Prevent Surgical Infections? Celebrating The Anniversary Of The First Antiseptic Surgery

Kasturi Goswami
5 min readAug 12, 2022

It was the middle of the 19th century. Surgery was transforming, shedding behind years of ill-practiced semi-barbarous methods. General anesthesia was introduced and gained widespread acceptance. Despite these changes, the postoperative mortality rates never dipped.

The Miasma Theory

The Prevalent theory attributed the cause and spread of infections to ‘miasma’ or ‘bad air’. It was believed gases (mainly oxygen) entered the body during surgeries and tainted the wound, causing tissue breakdown. Moreover, the hygiene conditions in hospitals remained dreadful, risking the patients’ recovery and making them susceptible to further infections. This was the reason why doctors rarely risked open-cut surgeries during those days.

The Germ Theory

Louise Pasteur, a French biologist carried out formal experiments to prove that germs were the reason behind diseases. He exhibited that fermentation and microorganism culture in nutrient broths wasn’t spontaneous. The broths when exposed to unfiltered outside air directly or indirectly resulted in contamination and growth of microorganisms. Thus, he proved the presence of living microbes in the air, responsible for causing diseases invading humans, animals, and other living hosts. In short, the Germ Theory.

Louis Pasteur

Dr. Joseph Lister’s Study

British surgeon and scientist, Dr. Joseph Lister studied Pasteur’s paper, and the thought conjured: Can we prevent surgical infections by destroying the microorganisms responsible?

Lister realized that gases had no role to partake in. If pasteurization (in simple terms killing germs) killed microbes, chemicals were even more capable. In 1860 Jules Lemaire, a French doctor and pharmacist published a paper rendering the use of carbolic acid to treat infections, i.e. it had antiseptic properties.

Lister’s Attempt With Creosotes

To test out his theory, Lister opted to perform a small experiment with a patient suffering from a compound fracture. There existed a profound difference between simple and compound fractures besides their apprehended names. In the first case, the skin was intact and in the second, the skin was broken. In the second case, if the patient survived the surgical operation, the aftermath would result in gangrene, amputation and if unlucky even death.

Lister used a substance called German Creosote; then available as a 5% carbolic acid solution and used as a sewage cleansing agent. A French pathologist, Charles Jacques Bouchard, had argued about the usage of creosote as an antiseptic to treat diseases. Creosotes were chemicals typically derived from plant-based material and used as preservatives and later on as antiseptics. A small undiluted amount was taken and poured onto the wound. This formed a crust with blood. Over the next few days, a fresh dosage was applied daily. The patient recovered with no infections.

That was when the world on the 12th of August 1865 saw a medical breakthrough. Joseph Lister had successfully performed the first antiseptic surgery.

This experiment revolutionized and eventually paved the path of modern operative surgery. He subsequently went on to treat several patients using carbolic acid as an antiseptic. This decimated the postoperative mortality rate from 40% to 15%, single-handedly with his remarkable research.

Joseph Lister Performing Antiseptic Surgery Using The ‘Donkey Engine’

Bearing in mind that it is from the vitality of the atmospheric particles that all the mischief arises, it appears that all that is requisite is to dress the wound with some material capable of killing these septic germs, provided that any substance can be found reliable for this purpose, yet not too potent as a caustic. In the course of the year 1864, I was much struck with an account of the remarkable effects produced by carbolic acid upon the sewage of the town of Carlisle, the admixture of a very small proportion not only preventing all odour from the lands irrigated with the refuse material but, as it was stated, destroying the entozoa which usually infest cattle fed upon such pastures.

~ Sir Joseph Lister

FACT: Listerine mouthwash and the bacterium Listeria was named in Joseph Lister’s honor.

After Creosotes

Sensing the success rate around the 1870s, Lister started experimenting with surgical gauze imbued with new antiseptic materials. In an attempt to sterilize the wound, he went to the extremes of using carbolic acid-coated surgery uniforms and instruments. He even sprayed carbolic acid inside the operating room before the procedure. A device, the Donkey Engine was used; a long handle pump to spray carbolic acid gas. It went on to be a cause of mirth and ridicule. Lister stopped using it when he realized pathogenic microbes in the air were not plentiful.

Joseph Lister’s ‘Donkey Engine’

Initially, Dr Lister met a mixed reception. On one hand, he was applauded for a revolutionary step and on the other ridiculed for his uptakes on antiseptic surgery. Many of his colleagues found his methods imposing, non-tactful, and risky. But eventually, his approach prevailed.


Even though Dr. Lister is considered the Father of Antiseptic Surgery, in actual truth, it was Ignaz Semmelweis; a Hungarian physician who introduced the concept of antisepsis into medical practice. He spent almost 15 years trying to convince the medical community about the need for handwashing to reduce the cases of puerperal fever among pregnant women. But he gained no recognition for his work; his much-deserved credit was offered posthumously. Nevertheless, Dr. Lister served as the bridge between an orthodox folly and a radical reformation. Though doctors have upgraded his method of surgery, he will always be a checkpoint for a fundamental transformation in medical science.

Image Source ~ Shutterstock




Kasturi Goswami

I head the content team of a digital transformation startup. Medium is an outlet for my itch to write something that isn't part of my job.