100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Antiseptics
Year of Invention: 1847

What Is It? A substrance that inhibits the growth and action of microorganisms.

Who Invented It? Ignaz Semmelweiss (in Vienna, Austria)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Perhaps the single most important of all medical inventions, the seemingly simple idea of using antiseptics—of washing to kill germs and prevent their spread into open wounds during surgery—has saved countless millions of lives. Surgery used to be deadly dangerous— more so from post-operation infection than from the actual surgical procedure. The word antiseptic comes from the Greek words meaning “against rotting.”


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Through the eighteenth century, far more soldiers died from post-operative infection than from enemy bullets or swords. Surgeries to remove a bullet, to sew up a gash, or even to remove a limb were simple and safe compared to the probability of infection, fever, and resulting death afterward. Surgeons were viewed as butchers. Surgery was an absolute last resort.


How Was Antiseptic Invented?

Doctor Ignaz Semmelweiss was more embarrassed than surprised, more incensed than curious. In 1847, Semmelweiss was a highly regarded Hungarian obstetrician at the Vienna General Hospital in Vienna, Austria. He was reading a study he had ordered of births in the hospital over the past year. In the wards where Semmelweiss and his trained medical staff examined expectant mothers and delivered their babies, one in five women died of puerperal fever. (Puerperal was a Latin word meaning “childbearing.” In America it was commonly called childbed fever.)

But in the wards where midwives attended the women, only one in 30 died from the dreaded fever. How could untrained midwives be doing the same job that trained medical professionals were doing and saving six times as many women?!

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