Good Old Hospital Stink

Epidemiology, Medicine, Surgery

Last time we explored early 19th-century hospitals as the perfect breeding ground for insects and diseases. 🐜 In the pre-germ-theory world, dirty clothes, unwashed linens, festering wounds, and limited access to clean water were pretty standard for a hospital experience, followed by outbursts of such diseases like rubella or cholera. 💀 Unfortunately, many surgeons contributed to this situation by not washing their hands, not disinfecting surgical instruments, and … glorifying their blood-soaked frock coats and surgical aprons. 🩸

You see, it was believed that the dirtier the surgical attire, the more busy and successful its owner was. 💉 Some surgeons even wore clothes that had previously belonged to retired staff members as a sign of respect and keeping traditions alive. Those who wore “butcher’s aprons” mostly did so to protect their private, nice clothing and didn’t wash them anyway. As you can imagine, these pus- and blood-soaked, never-washed items were basically rotting and gave out a putrid smell which was lovingly referred to as “the good old hospital stink.” 🧀

The situation slowly began to change in the mid-19th century, when several doctors (e.g. Joseph Lister, Ignaz Semmelweis, Thomas Dent Mütter) tried to popularize washing the surgical attire and promoted the idea of cleanliness in general, for which they were often ridiculed. 🧼

To learn more about 19th century hospitals, check out Lindsey Fitzharris’ book The Butchering Art. A highly recommended read!

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