This man discovered a dirty little secret that reinvented medicine

New York Post | 11/18/2017 | Staff
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The only place you’d expect to encounter the “unmistakable smell of rotting flesh” these days would be at a slaughterhouse.

In Victorian London, you’d find it in an operating room.

Surgeon - Apron - Hands - Instruments - Smell

A “surgeon, wearing a blood-encrusted apron, rarely washed his hands or his instruments and carried with him … the unmistakable smell of rotting flesh . . . cheerfully referred to as ‘good old hospital stink,’ ” writes Lindsey Fitzharris, author of “The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine,” out now.

At the time, the medical community was unaware of the existence of germs and didn’t know how infectious diseases were passed on. As a result, cleanliness was not a factor in surgery, leading to gruesome sights and harrowing results.

Surgeons - Workers - Men - Lice - Hospital

Surgeons — then regarded as low-status workers and often paid less than the men employed to pick lice off hospital beds — didn’t bother cleaning the blood and guts from surgical tables or their instruments between operations. No one in the operating theater wore gloves, and “it was not uncommon to see a medical student with shreds of flesh, gut or brains stuck to his clothing.”

Hospitals were so deadly that surgeries done at home — usually on one’s kitchen table — had a much greater survival rate than those done in a house of medicine.

Joseph - Lister - House - Surgeon - London

In 1852, Joseph Lister was the young house surgeon at London’s University College Hospital. While dealing with an outbreak of gangrene, then common in hospitals, he noticed that when he cleaned his patients’ ulcers — an unusual practice at the time — they had a much higher incidence of recovery.

Eliminating hospital infections became his obsession. He traveled throughout Europe to see how other hospitals handled the issue and conducted his own research. His breakthrough came when he learned about the work of Louis Pasteur.

Year - Pasteur

The year before, Pasteur...
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