Carbolic Sprayer

The British surgeon Joseph Lister invented a device like this one that sprayed a chemical over the surgical team, the patient and the instruments during the operation. The chemical, carbolic acid, was known to kill microbes. The idea that you should kill the microbes you know are present in the surgical environment is called “antisepsis.”

From W. Watson Cheyne, Antiseptic surgery, its principles, practice, history and results (1882)
1870
© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Washing the operating room

At the Royal Victoria Hospital around 1900, they knew the importance of cleaning the operating room. Evidently cleaning in the hospital, like in the home, was still considered women's work.

Photo courtesy of McGill University Archives
c. 1900
PUO236847
© McGill University Archives


Before Louis Pasteur (in France) and Robert Koch (in Germany) came along with their germ theories of disease, people thought that infection was caused by various kinds of “bad air.” The new theories (introduced around 1870) proposed that infection was caused by tiny invisible living organisms (“germs”). To many this seemed hard to believe (“Tiny invisible invaders in my body? Right. And my granny's the Queen of England.”) Even when the theory was accepted, it wasn't clear how it related to surgical practices. Over thirty years, surgeons gradually figured out that the first step in reducing the inflammation, pus, rotting flesh, and death after a surgery was making sure the surgical area was clean and germ-free.

Operating room fashions evolved significantly between 1900 and 1950. At first, surgeons and nurses wore their regular clothes during an operation, maybe with a rubber apron overtop if it was going to be a messy one. Then they started to wear gowns over their street clothes. Then came caps, and gloves, and shoe covers. Early masks were made of cloth, and had to be sterilized before each use. Now masks are usually made of paper, a Read More
Before Louis Pasteur (in France) and Robert Koch (in Germany) came along with their germ theories of disease, people thought that infection was caused by various kinds of “bad air.” The new theories (introduced around 1870) proposed that infection was caused by tiny invisible living organisms (“germs”). To many this seemed hard to believe (“Tiny invisible invaders in my body? Right. And my granny's the Queen of England.”) Even when the theory was accepted, it wasn't clear how it related to surgical practices. Over thirty years, surgeons gradually figured out that the first step in reducing the inflammation, pus, rotting flesh, and death after a surgery was making sure the surgical area was clean and germ-free.

Operating room fashions evolved significantly between 1900 and 1950. At first, surgeons and nurses wore their regular clothes during an operation, maybe with a rubber apron overtop if it was going to be a messy one. Then they started to wear gowns over their street clothes. Then came caps, and gloves, and shoe covers. Early masks were made of cloth, and had to be sterilized before each use. Now masks are usually made of paper, and are thrown out after a single use.

There are two common ways to disinfect hospital instruments and materials: with heat or with chemicals. Either one can be very effective in killing microbes. With this sterilizer, the lower tray was placed over a heat source and filled with water. When the water was hot, it gave off steam. The steam rose and disinfected the instruments in the upper tray.

Autoclaves like this one used steam and pressure to kill any microbes on medical instruments. The practice of making sure instruments are free of microbes before the surgery is called “asepsis.” The term also applies to basic things like surgeons washing their hands and wearing clean gowns.

© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Surgery Mask

Surgery Mask

Canada Science and Technology Museum and the University Health Network Artifact Collection
c. 1921
© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Instrument Sterilizer

Instrument Sterilizer

Canada Science and Technology Museum and the University Health Network Artifact Collection
1914
© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


See inside the autoclave.

Click and drag on the image to open and close the autoclave.

Canada Science and Technology Museum and the University Health Network Artifact Collection
c. 1950s and 1960s
© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Autoclaves

Autoclaves in the sterile supply department of Misericordia General Hospital (Winnipeg) in the 1960s.

Canada Science and Technology Museum and the University Health Network Artifact Collection
1960
© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


When plastics were invented in the 1960s, hospitals thought they might solve the growing problem of having to sterilize all the instruments and equipment in the hospital. Plastics were cheap, so cheap that that you could use a new, sterile, plastic instrument once and then throw it out. Though this seemed to be a good solution to one problem, it created another one: a whole lot of hospital garbage. This garbage is potentially infected with dangerous microbes. Most of this “biohazardous waste” is burned in large-scale garbage incinerators. And this too is costly and contributes to air pollution. So the problem remains...

The methods for sterilizing surgical instruments (heat or chemicals—like the chemical pictured here) damaged the decorative handles of pre-1900 surgical instruments. After 1915, gone were the decorative handles in ivory, bone or wood. In came utilitarian stainless steel, which could withstand the high heat and chemicals. The new instruments were also designed so that they didn't have little grooves or seams that could harbour lurking bacteria.

Gloves were first used in the operating room in the United States in the 1890s&md Read More
When plastics were invented in the 1960s, hospitals thought they might solve the growing problem of having to sterilize all the instruments and equipment in the hospital. Plastics were cheap, so cheap that that you could use a new, sterile, plastic instrument once and then throw it out. Though this seemed to be a good solution to one problem, it created another one: a whole lot of hospital garbage. This garbage is potentially infected with dangerous microbes. Most of this “biohazardous waste” is burned in large-scale garbage incinerators. And this too is costly and contributes to air pollution. So the problem remains...

The methods for sterilizing surgical instruments (heat or chemicals—like the chemical pictured here) damaged the decorative handles of pre-1900 surgical instruments. After 1915, gone were the decorative handles in ivory, bone or wood. In came utilitarian stainless steel, which could withstand the high heat and chemicals. The new instruments were also designed so that they didn't have little grooves or seams that could harbour lurking bacteria.

Gloves were first used in the operating room in the United States in the 1890s—not to protect the patient from germs on the surgeon's hands, but to protect the nurses' hands from the harsh disinfectant used. By the 1920s, glove-wearing became standard practice during surgery. The gloves, made of rubber, had to be thin, so that the surgeons and nurses could do the delicate work of cutting and stitching. Today healthcare workers wear disposable latex gloves, but many are developing an allergy to latex. This is a problem still waiting for its solution. Any ideas?

© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Disposable Medical Supplies

Disposable Medical Supplies

Canada Science and Technology Museum and the University Health Network Artifact Collection
2002
© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Surg-I-Kleen 1940-1966

Surg-I-Kleen 1940-1966

Canada Science and Technology Museum and the University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Roll-rite latex gloves

Roll-rite latex gloves 1933-1952

Canada Science and Technology Museum and the University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CMST & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Observe evolution of hospitals, tools and treatments throughout the twentieth century;
  • Identify the evolution of medical technology and discuss its contribution to treatment and medical care;
  • Illustrate concepts in biology, identify specific diseases and treatments offered (past and present).

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