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Small bottle containing catgut ligatures, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1869-1875

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Catgut has a misleading name as it is actually collagen taken from healthy mammals, usually sheep. Catgut ligatures were used to tie off arteries and vessels during surgery. The catgut was covered in carbolic acid (phenol). Joseph Lister (1817-1912) introduced catgut ligatures in 1869 as part of his antisepsis techniques. The carbolic acid was used to prevent infection. The ligatures were absorbed by the body once their work was done. J F Macfarlan, who manufactured and sold this product, made a number of surgical instruments and appliances for Lister under the surgeon’s direction.

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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: suture

The closing of a wound or incision with thread to help the healing process.

Glossary: ligature

A thread or string for tying the blood vessels, particularly the arteries, to prevent bleeding. The word ‘ligature’ can also refer to the action or result of binding or tying, e.g. the ligature of an artery.

Glossary: catgut

A material prepared from animal tissue (usually sheep intestinal wall). It was twisted to different thicknesses and used to sew wounds and tie blood vessels. The material slowly dissolves and so the stitches do not require removal.