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From Microbes to Matrons

William Watson Cheyne (1852 - 1932)

Portrait of Watson Cheyne, 1908-18. King's College ArchivesPortrait of Watson Cheyne, 1908-18. King's College ArchivesCase notes of Watson Cheyne, 1892. King's College ArchivesCase notes of Watson Cheyne, 1892. King's College ArchivesCase notes of Watson Cheyne, 1892. King's College ArchivesCase notes of Watson Cheyne, 1892. King's College ArchivesWilliam Watson Cheyne was one of the most important advocates of Lister’s antiseptic treatment of surgical wounds and sometimes known as ‘Lister’s bulldog’. However, his investigations into microorganisms in wounds also led to his reputation as one of Britain’s first bacteriologists. 

In 1871, Cheyne was a medical student at the University of Edinburgh. After attending Lister’s lectures, Cheyne became convinced that Lister was correct about the effectiveness of antiseptics in treating septic wounds.

His abilities and enthusiasm caught Lister’s eye and in 1876, he became Lister’s house surgeon. Reports of germs in carbolic acid dressings prompted Cheyne to begin research on wound pathology ‘in a little passage behind the operating theatre in the Old Edinburgh Infirmary.’

Cheyne went with Lister to London in 1877. While some surgeons at King’s College Hospital were initially hostile to Lister’s system, Cheyne continued his research into wound pathology.

After three years’ work, he argued that germs present in wound dressings were caused by poor technique, specifically that surgeons used a weak solution of carbolic acid, and that any germs surviving in properly dressed antiseptic wounds were harmless micrococci.

At this point, he argued that there was a difference between bacteria (bad) and micrococci (good).

He published his findings in his book Antiseptic Surgery: Its Principles, Practice, History and Results in 1882, but Ogston's work and Koch’s identification of the tubercle bacillus led to Cheyne’s admission that he had missed the fact that micrococci are present in all acute abscesses and were in fact their cause.

He set out his revised position in a new volume, The Antiseptic Treatment of Wounds, in 1885.

By the time Cheyne offered an extramural course in bacteriology at KCL in 1886, he adopted a more inclusive approach to Listerism.

Lister’s antiseptic system did not only mean cleaning wounds with carbolic acid or other antiseptics, but also meant upholding general wound cleanliness.

Despite his initial interest, Cheyne largely abandoned bacteriological investigation in the 1890s in pursuit of his clinical career. He succeeded Lister as Professor of Clinical Surgery at King’s College in 1892, and maintained the importance of antisepsis in the management of wounds throughout his life. 

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