You might grumble when your mom makes you wash your hands with soap before sitting down for dinner. But did you know that washing hands is so important, it actually saves lives?
Ignaz Semmelweiss - The saviour of mothers
Ignaz Semmelweiss (pictured) was a doctor at the Vienna General Hospital from 1846 to 1865. He was greatly worried that too many women died during childbirth. After careful observations, he discovered that doctors who handled different patients accidentally caused infections in women who came to deliver babies. He started the practice of making all doctors and nurses wash their hands in chlorinated lime (now called calcium hypochlorite). Because of this, the rate of deaths declined sharply.
Semmelweiss developed a theory that there were tiny ‘particles’ that could be transmitted from body to body and caused diseases. However, no one believed him. Because of this, his practice was not adopted outside his own hospital.
Ignaz Semmelweiss first started the practice of making all doctors and nurses wash their hands before and after surgery.
Joseph Lister – the founder of antiseptic surgery
A doctor at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary called Joseph Lister had similar thoughts to what Semmelweiss had. He wondered whether germs could be killed by chemical solutions. After a few experiments, he discovered that carbolic acid (now called phenol) was effective. He used it to clean surgical tables and instruments before and after surgery. Due to this, the survival of patients was greatly increased. Soon, carbolic soap was mandatory in all hospitals.
So why did Lister succeed while Semmelweiss did not?
The germ theory and modern antiseptics
Semmelweiss failed because he could not prove his theory. That proof came only in 1864, when Louis Pasteur demonstrated that microscopic bacteria caused diseases. This is now called the ‘germ theory of disease’. Pasteur’s published his discovery in a famous science journal that was read all over the world. When Joseph Lister came across this article, he could immediately explain why his carbolic soap was saving lives – it was killing the germs that cause disease.
Carbolic acid is no longer used as an antiseptic, as it is highly poisonous. Alcohol and iodine tincture are now preferred as they are safe. Boric acid is used as a dry antiseptic for fungal infections, and triclosan in toothpastes.
Strictly speaking, an antiseptic is a substance applied externally on human and animal bodies only. Anything used to sterilize clothes, floors, walls, surgical instruments, swimming pools etc is known as a disinfectant. Common disinfectants include chlorine, iodoform, hydrogen peroxide, and phenol. Chloroxylenol is used as both, going by the trade name of Dettol.