King's College London
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Learning from Lister

Antiseptic dressings

Photograph of gauze dressingCopies of antiseptic dressings devised by Lister, 1860-75, made for the Lister centenary exhibition, 1927. Science Museum/SSPL.If antiseptic surgery were to be effective, Lister had to develop dressings which would exclude foreign material and avoid the potentially irritating effects of carbolic acid on the skin, while at the same time retaining the carbolic acid in the dressing.

After many experiments he settled in 1889 on an antiseptic dressing which contained gauze charged with double cyanide of mercury and zinc. The exhibits here are among his first gauze antiseptic dressings. The antiseptic dressings are a much more durable part of Lister’s legacy than the carbolic spray.

Lister had at first used porous lint soaked in carbolised oil, but this washed out the antiseptic liquid, as well as the discharge from the wound. He then tried combinations of putty and non-absorbent plasters with rags.

After trying oakum (old rope treated with tar), which had antiseptic qualities and ensured that the skin remained dry under it, but which he rejected because of its pungent smell, he hit upon gauze impregnated with resin, which was diluted with paraffin. Resin was neither sticky, dirty nor smelly, and was also capable of holding the carbolic acid for at least 24 hours, in order to withstand the dissolving effect of discharges from wounds.

The carbolic acid gauze, first used by Lister in 1871, was a folded muslin cloth of open texture which could be re-used several times and was very absorbent. This was particularly useful for general practitioners, without ready access to plentiful hospital supplies. A complete dressing consisted of a pad of gauze eight layers thick. A layer of thin mackintosh was placed between the seventh and eighth layers, in order to force the wound discharge to travel to the edge of the dressing before it could be contaminated by germs. The dressing smelt faintly of carbolic acid and was soft and pliable.

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