Antisepsis: Definition & History

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Antisepsis is a critical part of the surgical preparation and recovery processes. In this lesson, you'll learn about the history of antisepsis practices, including those still used in medicine today.

What is Antisepsis?

Antisepsis is the process of preventing the growth of infectious germs, like bacteria, viruses and fungi. The Greek root word, 'anti', means against, while 'sepsis' means putrefaction or decay, so antisepsis means against decay or infection, a critical part of any recovery process. These tiny infectious germs are called microorganisms, and they try to get into the body through cuts or wounds whenever the body's defense mechanisms are breached or compromised.

The substance used in antisepsis is called an antiseptic, which is used to kill a broad range of infections. An antiseptic is different from an antibiotic, which is used to target a certain type of bacteria. Once scientists and surgeons learned more about bacteria and the connection between bacteria and infection, they developed ways to prevent the latter.

History of Antisepsis

The history of using various remedies used to treat wounds and prevent infections is a rich one, even though the underlying causes of infection weren't always so well understood. As far back as 1500 B.C., the ancient Egyptians used different substances to treat wounds and preserve mummies. Around 400 B.C., Hippocrates, often referred to as the father of medicine, realized wine and vinegar could be used to treat wounds too. Medieval Europeans relied on the use of balsam until the 1800s. These early treatments helped a little, but none were especially effective at preventing infections from occurring after major surgeries. Mortality rates were still extremely high, mainly because the link between bacteria and infection hadn't been made yet.

Hippocrates is credited with being the father of medicine.

The situation changed when a French chemist, Louis Pasteur, finally discovered the connection between bacteria and infection and identified airborne microorganisms. While investigating how wounds healed and bacteria flourished, an English surgeon, Joseph Lister, developed the first antiseptic methods for surgical procedures using carbolic acid. In this process, the antiseptic was sprayed on the skin before surgery, with multiple layers of treated bandages placed on the wound afterwards.

For awhile, mercury-based antiseptics were also used; however, instead of actually killing the bacteria, they just slowed their reproduction and spread. Medical uses of iodine, a nonmetallic chemical element, were discovered in 1811. But while all of these discoveries helped, they weren't the whole solution.

Joseph Lister introduced the use of carbolic acid into surgery.
Joseph Lister

In the mid-1800s, Ignaz Semmelweiss, a Hungarian doctor, introduced his fellow physicians to the practice of hand washing before and after treating patients - what a thought! Then, in 1890, William Halsted, an American physician debuted the use of sterile rubber gloves during surgery, now a common practice in surgical procedures.

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