Experience Our Heritage

Attack of the Germs! The Germs Want You!

Attack of the Germs! The Germs Want You!


During cold and flu season you see the signs up saying to wash your hands to prevent the spread of germs.  Did you know that during ancient times people believed that infection and disease were due to evil spirits or demons and were punishment for sin?  As time continued science made strides in the field of germs and developed the autoclave.  An autoclave is an apparatus in which special conditions can be established for a variety of application; especially an apparatus for sterilizing.  Here at the High Plains Museum we have an autoclave that was used by a local doctor, Dr. A.C. Gulick. 

Originally people believed that demons and evil spirits were the cause behind infection and disease.  To cure the sick person witchcraft or magic was used.  Hippocrates of Cos was the first to separate medicine from the old ways of thinking and disproved the idea that disease was punishment for sin.  He believed that irrigating the wounds with wine or boiled water would cleanse the wound and would keep the wound sterile.  Galen, another Greek, who came after Hippocrates would sterilize his instruments by boiling them in water.  Hippocrates and Galen became the established authorities on medicine for many centuries after.  During the Middle Ages, however, the practices of sterilization did not advance, which helped spread the plague throughout Europe, even though efforts were made to stop it.

Antonj van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutchman, proved the existence of microorganisms by the use of a microscope.  Dr. Johann Julius Walbaum, a German, was the first recorded person to use gloves while performing a medical procedure.  The gloves were made from the intestines of sheep and helped make an important medical standard today.  Can you imagine a surgeon not using gloves today?  It was not until around 1847 when

Ignaz Semmelweis
Ignaz Semmelweis

a Hungarian by the name of Ignaz Semmelweis encouraged the washing of hands and scrubbing under nails.  He also used an antiseptic chlorinated lime solution.  Even though Semmelweis encouraged hand washing, it was not taken seriously until Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory in the late 1880’s.  The germ theory concluded that germs attack the body from the outside, that they are so tiny they cannot be seen by the human eye and that diseases could be prevented by vaccination.

Charles Chamberland, who worked closely with Louis Pasteur, invented the first autoclave sterilization process which had its origins in the pressure cooker.  Pressure cookers work by creating a seal between the pot and the lid.  This traps air inside the pot and while the air is heated it also increases the temperature of the water, making a sterilization process for medical instruments.  Due to his work with Pasteur, Chamberland understood the germ theory and determined that some germs could withstand the boiling point of sterilization up to 10 or 20 degrees higher. Chamberland also discovered that only the submerged parts of the instruments in the solution would be sterile and that oxygen was a key factor to germs.  Chamberland continued to make strides in the medical profession throughout his life by coming up with vaccines for cholera, anthrax and swine measles as well as his continuing work with germs for the rest of his career.

Autoclaves continued to evolve and in 1881 Robert Koch and his associates developed the first non-pressure flowing steam sterilizer.  This meant that everything used during a surgical operation would and could be sterilized including the linens and dressings.  It was not until 1885 however that the steam sterilizer was used to sterilize surgical instruments.  Autoclaves used to be rather large machines such as the first autoclave patented in 1933 by Hans A. Fahlvik and Kurt E. Sandquist.  This machine had one main chamber for the sterilizing of objects with two supply conduits for steam to be let into the chamber.    There have been sixteen other patents filed for autoclaves and while all deal with sterilization some deal with the food industry not just the medical industry.

High Plains Museum |P025Sterilizer used by Dr. Gulick
High Plains Museum |
P025
Sterilizer used by Dr. Gulick

The autoclave we have in our collection is small, and could have been an autoclave that was not pressurized.  As you can see from the picture on the left it is a small white basin with a lid instead of the large machines used in earlier times.  You can see by our autoclave how this object has evolved over time.  This autoclave could have simply contained a liquid sterilizer until the equipment could be put in a pressure steam autoclave.  Ours was donated by Mervin Gulick who was the son of Dr. Gulick.  Dr. Gulick would have used this in his practice here in Goodland and knew the importance of sterilization in medical practice.  Dr. Gulick delivered 1,841 babies who received the name “Gulick Babies” and was a prominent figure in our community who was honored in Goodland throughout his lifetime.

Sterilization has played a huge part in medical development.  Early times believed that infections and diseases were caused by evil spirits or demons.  As science developed it became understood that germs actually caused infections and that the way to protect against germs and stop the spread of them was sterilization.  The first autoclave was invented by Charles Chamberland who worked for Louis Pasteur.  Autoclaves continued to develop and Robert Koch developed the first non-pressure flowing steam sterilizer.  From 1933 to 2003 seventeen autoclaves or improvements to the autoclave have been patented in the United States.  With the invention of the autoclave and sterilization being mandatory people are living longer and able to fight off diseases and infections.  The autoclave we have in our collection has rich history by being used by Dr. Gulick a prominent doctor in our community.

Check out these links for more information and for resources that were used to craft this article: (1) Autoclaving Procedures (2) Charles Edouard Chamberland (3) A brief history of sterilization (4) Louis Pasteur (5) Dr. Semmelweis’s Biography.

Look for more posts in this series about our wonderful collection of Sherman County history.

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