Doctor, Did You Wash Your Hands?

 Anti-bacterial soap in five flavors
Anti-bacterial soap in five flavors

Closing in on the shampoo aisle of my neighborhood drugstore, I spied this display of anti-bacterial soap. Now that flu season approaches, we are constantly reminded to wash our hands often. Hospitals have wall dispensers of hand sanitizers for the use of visitors, and patients are encouraged to remind their doctors and nurses to sanitize their hands before they permit themselves to be touched. Even five-year-olds know about “germs,” which is more than can be said for 19th-century physicians. I couldn’t help but think of the following from my book An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City, 1835-65.

Library of Congress
On October 16, 1846, ether was used for the first time to anesthetize a patient during surgery, but no photograph was taken to commemorate the historic event. Several years later, the original surgeon, Dr. John Warren (facing camera with his hand on patient’s thigh) and some of his colleagues posed for this reenactment of the operation to remove a tumor from the neck of the patient. Doctors in street clothes and the obvious absence of a sterile field are breathtaking evidence of the primitive nature of surgery before the awareness of microorganisms that caused post-operative infection.

With the availability of general anesthesia, surgical procedures that had not been possible earlier began to be performed. But of course doctors, lacking a knowledge of microorganisms, saw no reason to provide a sterile environment, and patients frequently died of postoperative infection as a result. Infection after surgery was simply taken as a matter of course. In 1864 John Ward was invited by his mentor and professor , Dr. Peters, to observe the removal of the breast of a Mrs. Loper. The operation took place in the upstairs bedroom of the patient’s home on Forty-Fourth Street. There were no surgical gowns or masks or gloves then, no imperative to sterilize instruments or to scrub hands and nails. . . .

Chapter 14, “Domestic Dramas,” tells about medical treatment during the 19th century.
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