King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Learning from Lister

Carbolic spray dispenser

Photograph of carbolic sprayCarbolic spray, c1874, devised by Joseph Lister. Weston Education Centre, King’s College London. The object with which Lister’s name is most associated is the carbolic spray. However, this was among the most ephemeral of Lister’s innovations and had been publicly disowned by its inventor by 1890. The use of carbolic acid, or phenol, in the practice of other applications of antiseptic surgery was more lasting.

Phenol is a derivative of coal tar. It was discovered in 1834 and was first used in its raw state, as creosote, to preserve railway ties and ships’ timbers. In Britain and the Low Countries it had been used against parasites during outbreaks of cholera and cattle plague and to reduce smells resulting from decomposition of sewage.

Lister knew that F Crace-Calvert, an honorary professor of chemistry at Manchester’s Royal Institution, had built a business in 1859 based on the manufacture of white crystals which liquefied at 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Among the medical uses of these crystals was the preservation of cadavers. Lister began to publicise its application to surgery in 1867.

Many surgeons who would perhaps have been ready to accept Lister’s other applications of carbolic acid to surgery were put off by the notoriety of the spray. The scientific assumption on which the spray was used, that infections which caused putrefaction of wounds and fatal disease were necessarily airborne, and that therefore the whole atmosphere of the operating theatre had to be impregnated with carbolic acid, had been invalidated by the late 1880s by advances in bacteriology.

It was primarily on this basis, and not on the numerous practical objections of other surgeons, that Lister eventually rejected it. The smell of the acid, its tendency to cause vomiting in a number of patients and its liability to deluge an operating theatre in mist and to irritate patients (most notably Queen Victoria) were factors which prevented it from becoming universally accepted.

The model shown here, which was operated by steam, is its last, most reliable and usable form. Previous sprayers had been operated manually, had been mounted on tripods and were very cumbersome. This machine had two connected tubes, one through which air was forced to draw the liquid through the other one. More than one sprayer was usually needed to create an antiseptic cloud in the operating theatre.

In this exhibition

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