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Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian medical doctor who is also a pioneer of antiseptic surgery and antisepsis. He is regarded as the father of infection control because of his discovery of the cause of maternal death during childbirth. Ignaz introduced an infection control method known as antisepsis to control the contamination of the labour room by pathogenic microorganisms which caused the death of pregnant women during childbirth as at the time. As a physician, he showed that child-bed fever was spread by physicians and could be prevented by careful washing of the hands before attending to patients in the ward or operating room.

He realized that blood poisoning agents were transmitted to maternity patients by physicians fresh from performing autopsies in the mortuary, and he also observed that asepsis in obstetrical wards could prevent the transmission of childbirth fever from patient to patient. Ignaz Semmelweis therefore instigated a policy that all attending physicians must wash their hands with chloride of lime, and between patients – as this procedure reduced the spread of disease. Even though he is still remembered for his contributions towards the principle of disinfection (a practice that can stop the spread of disease or infection), his true call for disinfection practices in the medical profession was largely unheeded to as at the time because it implied that physicians were at fault in this case.


However, Ignaz’s discovery of aseptic technique or antisepsis in obstetric wards as at the time is still used till date as an important infection control practice in hospitals. And hand washing technique as well as disinfection and antisepsis which are amongst the most veritable tool in preventing microbial contamination of the hands and the entire body is still being practiced all over the world as the surest way of keeping microbes at bay. The work of Ignaz Semmelweis showed that pathogenic microorganisms can be controlled on the human body and on other abiotic (non-living) surfaces by using certain antimicrobial agents such as antiseptics and disinfectants to control microbial growth.  

JOSEPH LISTER (1827-1912):

Joseph Lister was an English surgeon who pioneered the principles of antiseptic surgery, and he is regarded as the father of antiseptic surgery. He was aware of Semmelweis’s work and together with Pasteur realized the true nature of disease cause, transmission and prevention. Lister sought for ways to prevent microorganisms from infecting wounds because deaths resulting from post-surgery infections as at the time was alarming and accounted for several of the mortality due to post-surgery infections. This led him to develop a system of surgery which was designed to prevent the entry of microorganisms into wounds. He used dilute solution of carbolic acid to soak surgical dressings, and he also performed surgery only under or after a spray of disinfectant to prevent airborne infections. The carbolic acid which Lister used is now known as phenol.

After its application in medical practice, Lister’s patients had fewer post-operative infections and this provided indirect evidence that microorganisms were the causative agents of human disease. His published work transformed the practice of surgery around the world, and his experiments on this area is the origin of the present day aseptic technique used to prevent infections and their spread in clinical practices worldwide. In addition, Joseph Lister also carried out works on the lactic acid fermentation of milk, in which he demonstrated the specific cause of milk souring. He named the microorganism responsible for causing the souring of milk as Bacterium lactis.

Further reading

Brooks G.F., Butel J.S and Morse S.A (2004). Medical Microbiology, 23rd edition. McGraw Hill Publishers. USA. Pp. 248-260.

Madigan M.T., Martinko J.M., Dunlap P.V and Clark D.P (2009). Brock Biology of microorganisms. 12th edition. Pearson Benjamin Cummings Publishers. USA. Pp.795-796.

Nester E.W, Anderson D.G, Roberts C.E and Nester M.T (2009). Microbiology: A Human Perspective. Sixth edition. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc, New York, USA.

Prescott L.M., Harley J.P and Klein D.A (2005). Microbiology. 6th ed. McGraw Hill Publishers, USA. Pp. 296-299.

Singleton P and Sainsbury D (1995). Dictionary of microbiology and molecular biology, 3d ed. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Slonczewski J.L, Foster J.W and Gillen K.M (2011). Microbiology: An Evolving Science. Second edition. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc, New York, USA.

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