The word "antisepsis" derives from a Greek meaning "against decay," and the invention of antiseptics is one of the important medical innovations of all time. Antiseptics kill or slow down the growth of microorganisms that can cause infection. Prior to the widespread use of simple antiseptics, such as medical personnel washing their hands, death from infection after operations was quite common.

Healing Properties

Although antiseptics were not widely used until the germ theory of disease was generally accepted, healers from ancient times have understood that certain substances work well to heal wounds. The ancient Greeks used wine and vinegar, and physicians in the 18th and early 19th centuries used chloride of mercury and iodine. Still, by the mid-19th century, doctors, especially surgeons, were still not using basic antiseptic measures -- until Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss pioneered the use of an antiseptic.

Post-Operative Deaths

Semmelweiss was a Hungarian obstetrician alarmed at the fact that one in five women who gave birth on the wards of his hospital in Vienna died of puerperal fever. At the same time, he discovered that death rates were much lower -- only one in 30 -- in wards attended by midwives. After some observation, he theorized that the reason for this was that the midwives were, for the most part, dealing with only one childbirth, while he and his doctors attended multiple women successively. Not only that, but some medical students arrived to treat women after having dissected corpses, still carrying blood and tissue from the cadavers on their hands.

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Washing Hands

When Semmelweiss ordered his students to wash their hands in bleach diluted with water, the death rates of his post-childbirth patients fell dramatically, to only 1 percent. Around the same time, other doctors, such as the Scottish physician Alexander Gordon and the American physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, were making the same connection in regards to puerperal fever deaths. But no one quite knew why antiseptics worked until Louis Pasteur proved the germ theory of disease.

Saving A Life

After Pasteur’s discovery, Dr. Joseph Lister, a surgeon at London’s King College Hospital who was concerned about high post-operative mortality rates, decided to spray a carbolic acid solution on his instruments and in the area around wounds or incisions, in order to ward off infection. In doing so, he saved the life of a 7-year-old boy with a badly injured leg. It wasn't until the late 1890s that antiseptic practices in hospitals became widespread. Today it is the standard for all medical personnel working in operating rooms to wear sterile gloves, and for all instruments to be meticulously sterilized.

About the Author

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.