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Carbolic steam spray, Paris, France, 1872-1887

Joseph Lister (1827-1912) invented the carbolic acid spray as he believed the most dangerous infection-causing germs were in the air. The steam spray, which did not require an assistant to operate a cumbersome pump, covered everyone and everything in the operating room or hospital ward with a vapour of carbolic acid (phenol), creating an antiseptic environment. This spray shows modification made to Lister’s original design by one of his pupils, the French surgeon Just Marie Marcellin Lucas-Championniere (1843-1913). The bottom of the spray, which is surrounded by wire mesh housing a paraffin heater that warmed the container above, was full of water. The water vapour carried and ejected the carbolic steam from the two jets on the top and were controlled by two wooden regulators. Lucas-Championniere is best known for his work on surgery and he did much to promote the use of antisepsis in France.

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Glossary: carbolic acid

A strong disinfectant used for cleansing wounds. It is rarely used today, although it can still be found in mouthwash.

Glossary: antisepsis

The practice of using antiseptic drugs to eliminate harmful micro-organisms.

Glossary: carbolic spray

A disinfectant spray using carbolic acid that was used by Joseph Lister around 1870. Sprayed around the surgical theatre, it could prevent the spread of germs.