How Carlisle Sewage Works saved more lives than you can imagine, or ‘The Thing Is…’

Quentin Cooper and Hugh Pennington with Lister's carbolic spray

Quentin Cooper and Hugh Pennington with Lister's carbolic spray

This month saw the first in a new series of Wellcome Collection events called ‘The Thing Is…’, in which a guest speaker is invited to describe the history behind a single object found within Wellcome Collection’s storage. We sent Benjamin Thompson to find out what the object was.

Our speaker this month was Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen. The object he chose to describe was a device for spraying carbolic acid, dating back to around 1875, designed by Joseph Lister. Professor Pennington used the machine to describe the history of antisepsis, early microbiology and surgery.

Joseph Lister (1827–1912) revolutionised medical practice with astonishing speed. Within 15 years of his discovery, the outcome of surgery had changed from almost certain death to a decent chance of survival. Compare this to modern medicine, where it can take decades simply to get new technologies out of the lab and into the hospital.

But what did Lister discover? At the time there was the widely held view that diseases were called by ‘miasma’ – or bad air. Lister did not subscribe to this, having been made aware of the great microbiologist Louis Pasteur’s work on microorganisms.

Working in Glasgow, Lister began searching for chemicals that might kill the ‘germs of low forms of life’ – what microorganisms were known as (and the basis of the word germ). The answer came from an unexpected source. The professor of chemistry at the University of Glasgow explained to Lister that workers at the Carlisle sewage works had used carbolic acid to remove the terrible smells caused by the germs that thrived there. As a bonus this treatment meant that the cows that lived near the sewage works stopped dying… It struck Lister that this might be the chemical he was searching for.

Carbolic acid is commonly known today as phenol. Lister’s first (official) experiment with it was in 1865, on the compound fracture of a boy run over by a horse-drawn lorry. Normally this injury would have resulted in death, but Lister wrapped the wound in cloth dipped in carbolic acid. The boy suffered no infection and survived. Antiseptic surgery was born.

In addition to the dressing of wounds, the carbolic spray became a large part of the ‘Listerian method’ of surgery. These machines, some hand pumped, some flame driven, covered entire rooms (and the people in them) with carbolic acid. Lister was a believer in the idea that germs in the air falling into wounds were responsible for infection.

It turned out that the spray really wasn’t necessary. The legendary Robert Koch even showed in the 1880s that carbolic isn’t that effective at killing microorganisms. At this point other chemicals such as mercuric chloride started to be used. Lister became ashamed of his invention, but continued experimenting with the new generation of antiseptics.

Given this, why did Professor Pennington decide the carbolic acid spray was an object from Wellcome Collection that should be highlighted? He explained that although the spray itself was of no clinical value, it was emblematic of the new world of antisepsis. Before carbolic acid, surgery was an option of last resort, with a 90% mortality rate. After its uptake surgeons were able to take on non-life-threatening operations, increasing life expectancy and quality for rich and poor. It drove other advancements: the development of better antiseptics and study of microbes.

Joseph Lister was a pioneer – without his work and the advancements that followed, many of us wouldn’t be here today.

Listen to a recording of the event on the Wellcome Collection website. Benjamin Thompson is a writer at the Wellcome Trust. This post also appears on his microbiology blog.

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