The ancient Egyptians were the first civilization to have trained clinicians to treat physical aliments. Medical papyri, such as the Edwin Smith papyrus (circa 1600 BCE) and the Ebers papyrus (circa 1534 BCE), provided detailed information of management of disease, including wound management with the application of various potions and grease to assist healing.
See 5 Body Modifications and Piercing: Dermatologic Risks and Adverse Reactions, a Critical Images slideshow, to help recognize various body modifications and the related potential complications.
Hippocrates (Greek physician and surgeon, 460-377 BCE), known as the father of medicine, used vinegar to irrigate open wounds and wrapped dressings around wounds to prevent further injury. His teachings remained unchallenged for centuries.
Galen (Greek surgeon to Roman gladiators, 130-200 CE) was the first to recognize that pus from wounds inflicted by the gladiators heralded healing (pus bonum et laudabile [“good and commendable pus”]).
Unfortunately, Galen’s observation was misinterpreted, and the concept of pus preempting wound healing persevered well into the 18th century. The link between pus formation and healing was emphasized so strongly that foreign material was introduced into wounds to promote pus formation-suppuration. The concept of wound healing remained a mystery, as highlighted by the famous saying by Ambroise Paré (French military surgeon, 1510-1590), “I dressed the wound. God healed it.”
The scale of wound infections was most evident in times of war. During the American Civil War, erysipelas (necrotizing infection of soft tissue) and tetanus accounted for over 17,000 deaths, according to an anonymous source in 1883. Because compound fractures at the time almost invariably were associated with infection, amputation was the only option, despite a 25-90% risk of amputation stump infection.
Koch (Professor of Hygiene and Microbiology, Berlin, 1843-1910) first recognized the cause of infective foci as secondary to microbial growth in his 19th century postulates. Semmelweis (Austrian obstetrician, 1818-1865) demonstrated a fivefold reduction in puerperal sepsis by hand washing between performing postmortem examinations and entering the delivery room.
Joseph Lister (Professor of Surgery, London, 1827-1912) and Louis Pasteur (French bacteriologist, 1822-1895) revolutionized the entire concept of wound infection. Lister recognized that antisepsis could prevent infection.
In 1867, he placed carbolic acid into open fractures to sterilize the wound and to prevent sepsis and hence the need for amputation. In 1871, Lister began to use carbolic spray in the operating room to reduce contamination. However, the concept of wound suppuration persevered even among eminent surgeons such as John Hunter.
World War I resulted in new types of wounds from high-velocity bullet and shrapnel injuries coupled with contamination by the mud from the trenches. Antoine Depage (Belgian military surgeon, 1862-1925) reintroduced wound debridement and delayed wound closure and relied on microbiological assessment of wound brushings as guidance for the timing of secondary wound closure.
Alexander Fleming (microbiologist, London, 1881-1955) performed many of his bacteriologic studies during World War I and is credited with the discovery of penicillin.
As late as the 19th century, aseptic surgery was not routine practice. Sterilization of instruments began in the 1880s as did the wearing of gowns, masks, and gloves. Halsted (Professor of Surgery, Johns Hopkins University, United States, 1852-1922) introduced rubber gloves to his scrub nurse (and future wife) because she was developing skin irritation from the chemicals used to disinfect instruments. The routine use of gloves was introduced by Bloodgood, a student of Halsted.
Penicillin first was used clinically in 1940 by Howard Florey. With the use of antibiotics, a new era in the management of wound infections commenced. Unfortunately, eradication of the infective plague affecting surgical wounds has not ended because of the insurgence of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains and the nature of more adventurous surgical intervention in immunocompromised patients and in implant surgery.