Lister’s Antiseptic Spray

When studying surgery for the SHP History of Medicine development study pupils always enjoy looking at Lister and his antiseptic techniques. The surgery unit offers excitement, gore and colourful characters but it is all-too-easy to forget the ‘development’ focus in a festival of detail. For example Lister’s techniques look almost too good – see, for example, the illustration on p.138 of the white SHP book, Medicine and Health through Time (by Dawson and Coulson). Here the spray does its work while the surgeons proceed methodically and calmly (though it’s interesting to note what they are wearing).

So, if carbolic was so effective at killing germs a pupil could be forgiven for wondering firstly why there was opposition to the use of the ‘Lister spray’ and, secondly, why later aseptic techniques were necessary. I felt that some kind of demonstration as to why the carbolic spray was not an instrument of perfection would make it very clear to pupils that, whilst an important development in medical techniques, the spray left much to be desired. This would allow more balanced analysis of the pictorial sources so favoured by examiners of this topic.


A WORD version of this activity can be downloaded, click here.

The Activity

Take an A4 diagram of a body (a reproduction of one of Vesalius’ woodcuts works admirably). Show to the class then tear into approximately eight irregular pieces.

Take the role of the surgeon and explain that your task is to re-assemble the body as quickly as possible. Ask a pupil to time you. Give pupils the chance to beat your record and time them.

Now introduce a water pistol (supplied, filled and checked by you) as the antiseptic spray. Tuck a tea towel into your collar and select a demonic pupil to operate the spray. You now attempt to reassemble the body whilst the demonic pupil sprays it (and if you are feeling really brave in the quest for realism, you) with water. Time the reassembly. The time will be at least doubled as concentration will have been significantly affected. The pupils who were timed without the spray can also be given a chance to participate and results will be similar regarding time taken.

Discussion. How valid is the experiment? Compare with picture sources of Lister in action. Remind pupils that he was using mild acid in his spray! Ask why further developments would be wanted.

Suddenly Lister’s spray no longer seems to be the surgical panacea portrayed in the nineteenth century engravings and advertisements. Pupils have been given an alternative perspective from which to view the sources. They also have access to another dimension of comprehension of a concept: fallibility.

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The Activity