The world of science and technology was set to explode into action in the middle of the 19th century. Huge lumbering beasts, steam locomotives, soon would be barreling coast to coast in the United States and across Europe. Miles and miles of telegraph cables would travel under the Atlantic Ocean connecting North America and Europe by 1858; the East Coast and the West Coast of the United States would connect in 1861. And in the news of the tiny, Louis Pasteur was showing the world that microorganisms did indeed exist, that they acted on our world in myriad ways and that the ancient wisdom about “bad vapors” and spontaneous generation were wrong. Dead wrong. Prior to Pasteur and what would become known as “germ theory,” the prevailing theories held that organisms, like maggots and fleas, were spontaneously originated from other matter, like raw meat or diseased flesh.
It was, in some ways, a defeatist view that discouraged finding ways of fighting off infections. Another common train of thought that bad vapors cause the sick to get sicker led to stifling, closed-up hospital wards where lack of airflow contributed to more, not less, disease. Throwback Thursday recently looked back on how — virtually independent of germ theory — the real-world experience of the U.S. Civil War brought about germ-fighting practices such as airing out of wounds and utilizing additional clean bedding and bandages.
The French scientist began, not with bacteria and antibiotics, but with wine. In the early 1860s, by experimenting with the process of fermentation, Pasteur proved that it was not chemistry but microbiology that turned wine sour. A simple process of heating the wine, the first pasteurization, resulted in wine that tasted better and lasted longer. This scientific breakthrough was no small feat. If you think that the medical profession was slow to believe in tiny, invisible creatures wreaking havoc with our bodies, just think of how loudly winemakers protested when told they needed to radically change the way wine had been made for millennia. Yet, change they did. New discoveries changed the understanding of disease and medicine.
Pasteur is credited with opening the world’s eyes to the new science of microbiology and ushering in a brand new form of preventive medicine: immunization. “Louis Pasteur achieved remarkable discoveries in microbiology than would now only be expected in the lifetimes of a dozen scientists,” writes Conrad Fischer, M.D., in his forward to Collected Writings: Louis Pasteur & Joseph Lister. Building on what Pasteur was discovering, British surgeon Lister began to use this new germ theory to demonstrate the lifesaving value of disinfectant. Despite his skill at surgery, Lister knew that half his amputee patients would die of infection after the procedure. The assumption at the time was that “inflammation” was “brought about by the influence of the atmosphere upon the blood or serum retained within them,” he wrote. However “it seemed hopeless to attempt to exclude the oxygen which was universally regarded as the agency by which putrefaction was effected.” In seeking better methods, Lister read Pasteur’s germ theory in 1865 and set forth to find a way to exclude Pasteur’s “minute organisms suspended in the air” by putting some of his own sleuthing to work. In observing that workers used petroleum-based carbolic acid poured into city sewage in Edinburgh, Scotland, to lessen the stench, Lister surmised that the acid acted upon his newly found nemeses, microorganisms.
He began to treat his surgery equipment, before and after use, with carbolic acid. He also treated his patients’ wounds with it. “The nurses and staff barely tolerated the eccentricities of this surgeon who believed in funny little bugs that no one can see that invaded wounds to cause infection, sepsis, and death,” Fischer wrote. “After all, ‘hospitalism’ — a phrase describing the gangrene condition that resulted in half of all surgical patients — was a common phenomenon. But no one argued with Lister’s results: Within two years, operative mortality decreased from nearly 50 percent to just 15 percent.” “Much of the greatness of Pasteur and Lister lies in their dogged persistence to spend 20 years convincing the rest of the medical world of the truth of their investigations,” Fischer writes. “They are frustrated, yes, angry, yes, but they persist, and they prevail.”