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Project: From Microbes to Matrons: infection control in British hospitals, c1870-1970

From Microbes to Matrons: infection control in British hospitals, c1870-1970

Healthcare-associated infection is a global health safety challenge, contributing over 20,000 deaths in the UK annually. Raising hospital standards of hygiene and cleanliness to tackle this challenge is a current healthcare priority; it is also an important topic of historical enquiry. Yet, while much historical research has focussed upon the debates and controversies surrounding competing ideas of the causes of infection, little is known about the history of infection control in practice, in particular post-operative infection. Florence Nightingale and Joseph Lister advocated systems for improving hospital sanitary standards and for the pre- and post-operative treatment of wounds in the mid-nineteenth century, while twentieth century developments in asepsis were supplemented with new drugs, particularly antibiotics.

Beginning with Joseph Lister’s innovations and laborious surgical dressings and Florence Nightingales system for improving hospital sanitary standards, this research examines the pedagogy and practice of surgical wound care, focusing on the translation of bacteriology and antibiotics into practice and the emerging intra-professional division of labour. We use case studies of four hospitals associated with Lister and Nightingale - King’s College and St Thomas’ Hospitals in London; and Glasgow and Edinburgh Royal Infirmaries in Scotland; we draw on a variety of sources, including case notes, administrative records, lecture notes, textbooks, films and oral history, to build a comparative picture of post-operative hospital infection control in England and Scotland.


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