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Glass flask containing urine

This glass flask was used by Joseph Lister (1827-1912) in his experiments on putrefaction. He boiled urine in flasks of different types. Some had straight necks and others were twisted and bent. Urine in the straight-necked flasks decomposed but the twisted-neck flask, where dust had been caught, remained unchanged. This led Lister, like Pasteur before him, to conclude that “something in the air” or “germs” caused decomposition. From this Lister supposed that germs were the cause of infection, which led him to develop antisepsis. Later, Lister used his flasks as teaching aids in the lecture hall.

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Glossary: microbiology

Branch of biology that deals with micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and their effects.

Glossary: flask

A bottle with a wide body and a thinner neck used in Chemistry. Traditionally made of glass, but more recently made from plastic.

Glossary: antisepsis

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

Glossary: bacteriology

The study of a group of single-celled organisms called bacteria.

Glossary: putrefaction

The process of bacteria decomposing proteins, often leaving a strong and unpleasant smell.

Glossary: germ

Tiny organisms that cause disease. 'Germ' is now a term that is applied loosely to many micro-organisms, including bacteria, viruses and fungi.