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Wed, Sep 24, 2014 12:25 AM
Issue of September 17, 2014

A hope note
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A hope note
Dr. Wayne Willis reflects on life and hope.

Infection-fighting pioneers

August 20, 2014 | 10:02 AM

Next time you count your blessings, you might want to acknowledge the debt we owe to Joseph Lister and Alexander Fleming.

Before Lister, physicians were unaware that infections were caused by microorganisms. Surgeons did not wash their hands before surgery, nor did they sterilize their instruments.

Medical researcher Helen Clapesattle writes: "Men operated in whatever coat or shirt they happened to be wearing, covering it perhaps with a linen duster or an apron stiff with the stains of previous operations. They stropped their knives on the soles of their shoes before they began, and, while using one knife, held another ready between their teeth, its blade nestling among their whiskers. They washed their hands after, not before, the operation."

Patients often had a "successful" surgery, only to die soon afterward from the mysterious "ward fever."

Surgeries were often performed in the patient's house. The operating table was the kitchen table or parlor sofa or a door taken from its hinges and laid across two sawhorses.

In the 1860s, British surgeon Lister, having learned from Louis Pasteur about invisible-to-the-naked-eye bacteria, began using carbolic acid to cover wounds and sterilize instruments. He advocated washing hands with carbolic acid and spraying the operating room with carbolic acid before performing surgery. Deaths from post-operation infections plummeted.

When I was born, the word "antibiotic" had not been coined. Several years earlier, Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming entered his lab one morning to discover that a culture in one of his uncovered petri dishes was contaminated by a blue-green mold and bacteria around the mold were no longer growing. He identified the mold as Penicillium notatum. The development of antibiotics to fight infections followed in the mid-1940s.

But for the pioneering work of Lister and Fleming, many of us would not be here.

Dr. Wayne Willis


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