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Metal carbolic steam spray, cased, Europe, 1872-1900

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Joseph Lister (1827-1912) invented the carbolic acid spray as he believed most infection-causing germs were in the air. The steam spray covered everyone and everything in the operating room or hospital ward with a vapour of carbolic acid or phenol intended to create an antiseptic environment. The steam spray meant that an assistant was not required to work a cumbersome pump. Lister eventually abandoned the spray in 1887 as he found that germs carried on fingers, dressings, and the skin of the patient were more important. The spray had its own disadvantages as inhaling carbolic acid is dangerous.

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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.