Very recently, the UK Royal Mail issued a series of postage stamps commemorating the work of ten famous UK scientists. Among these is Joseph Lister, a professor of surgery whose work, along with Louis Pasteur, was responsible for our present appreciation of wound “infection”, and its prevention. Their work was done in the last quarter of the 19th Century
Lister saw and taught that infection of wounds, both traumatic (as from combat) and surgical, came from outside the body. When Louis Pasteur suggested that exposing bacteria in wounds to a chemical solution would kill them and thereby prevent infection, Lister tried the idea, using a solution of carbolic acid (phenol). In his patients so treated, the death rate from infection dropped from 50% to 15%.
Lister’s technique, while very effective, was adopted only slowly by European surgeons. This was evident when a group of Russian sailors came under American care at Naval Hospital Canacao in the Philippines. Their ships had escaped the destruction wrought on the Russian fleet in the decisive Japanese victory at the Battle of Tsushima Strait, 27-28 May 1905.
Fleet Surgeon Clement Biddle described the situation thus: “Three Russian Cruisers have just come in after getting a disastrous beating in the Korean Straits. They slipped away, I hear, under cover of a mist, and no doubt thus saved themselves from capture this way. To make a long story short, a lot of the wounded [58 in all] from these vessels have just been landed for treatment…” and “These patients entered the hospital about eight days after the fight, their wounds untouched from the day the first dressings were applied. All were suppurating [draining pus] and those I saw, freely so. It quite reminded me of the condition of surgery before the advent of Listerism.[editor’s italics] It was apparent that no real attempts at antisepsis by the Russian Medical officer had been made. A rough first dressing was applied, and that’s all.”
Fleet Surgeon Biddle joined the Navy in 1878, just as Lister’s principles were beginning to be used. Biddle obviously had seen patients before “Listerism”, when wounds were not treated, and after, when wounds received antiseptic care. For him the recollection of “the bad old days” was vividly appreciated in these poor Russian sailors.