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Replica of a donkey engine used by Joseph Lister, c. 1927

The donkey engine was used by Joseph Lister (1827-1912) around 1871 while conducting surgery or dressing wounds. It was designed to cover everyone and everything with a fine spray of carbolic acid. This created an antiseptic environment. Carbolic acid was placed in the bottle and pumped by an assistant using the long handle. The whole engine was mounted on a tripod and measures just over a metre in height. The tripod was large and was difficult to move around. It was abandoned in favour of the steam spray in 1872-1873. The original donkey engine was made by Andrew Brown. This copy was made for the Wellcome Institute of History of Medicine’s Lister Centenary Exhibition in 1927.

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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: donkey engine

A method of spraying antiseptic used by Joseph Lister, powered by hand and placed upon a tripod. The amount of carbolic acid that it delivered was so powerful that it had to be abandoned.