King's College London
Online Exhibitions
Learning from Lister

MacCormac on antiseptic surgery

Half-title page with inscription from the author MacCormac to George H. Makins.Inscription from the author MacCormac to George H. Makins on half-title page. Reproduced by kind permission.

Sir William MacCormac (1836-1901), who was born in Belfast, had three similarities to Sir Watson Cheyne: his origins were outside the somewhat insular English surgical establishment; his medical education was largely Austro-German; and he had much experience of military surgery.

In MacCormac’s case this included service in the Franco-Prussian war, the first military conflict in which Lister’s methods were used, albeit only patchily. Prussian surgeons had begun using carbolic acid in their hospitals and ambulances. MacCormac treated the wounded at Sedan using antiseptic methods; many amputees survived and the rate of illnesses such as erysipelas and gangrene, endemic in most pre-Listerian Victorian hospitals, was much lower.

As MacCormac stresses in this volume (the first book-length defence of antisepsis to be written by a Listerian), as long as the wound was treated soon after the injury had occurred, treatment would be effective. In the First World War, this was often not the case, and this put antiseptic surgery under the severest test.

Like Cheyne, MacCormac had studied under the celebrated Austrian surgeon Theodor Billroth (1829-94), who was the first Continental surgeon to adopt antisepsis and was a pioneer of abdominal surgery. It was not surprising that he became one of the foremost advocates of antisepsis. Unlike Cheyne, MacCormac’s career was at St. Thomas’s Hospital. He was elected President of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1895.

The inscription on the half-title page reads: ‘To George H. Makins Esq. With many affectionate greetings from William MacCormac.’ Sir George Henry Makins (1853-1933) had been house surgeon to MacCormac in 1878. He was President of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1917-20. Like Cheyne, he had experience of military surgery during the Boer War and the First World War.

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