Equipment and antisepsis

Antisepsis means the destruction of microorganisms to prevent infection. Equipment which was used in the past is different to what is used now due to the discovery that disease is spread easily if no sterilisation takes place.

Nurses and doctors during the 19th Century did not have adequate uniforms. Doctors didn’t use a separate set of clothing for surgery inside the operating theatre. Nurses in the past often wore clothing that was very restricting which meant that they couldn’t move around easily and had excessive fabric that could easily pick up and spread disease. This is because they did not understand about what caused infection and how infection was spread.

Doctors in the past for a while did not wear protective clothes at all – wearing the same clothes from home and not washing them between the hospital, street and their home. Slowly doctors started wearing aprons and white coats but these were not washed or cleaned between patients so disease was easily spread. Surgeons often saw their aprons as showcases of the number of patients they had operated on so left the blood on unwashed for days.

By the late 19th Century surgeons began to wear face masks and caps and rubber gloves, and to wear cotton theatre gowns over their day clothes. By the beginning of the 20th Century nurses uniforms started to be made of cotton instead of wool and their uniforms were laundered at high temperature to properly clean them.


Objects in focus

Baby feeding bottles

Vintage baby bottle

  • Used in the 1900s
  • Has a narrow opening which means it is difficult to clean
  • Made from glass so sterilisation at high temperatures is impossible as the glass will crack

Plastic baby bottle


  • Used today
  • Wide opening which means it is easier to clean
  • Made from plastic so it won’t break or crack when boiled at high temperatures for sterilisation


Cat gut sutures

  • Used in the 1900s and before
  • For stitching wounds
  • They are made from intestines of animals, such as sheep and cattle (not cats!)
  • Unhygienic
  • It was unethical as it led to killing animals


  • Used today
  • For stitching wounds
  • Made from nylon (a type of plastic) or silk
  • This is much better to use as the silk dissolves meaning patients do not have return to the doctor to get stitches taken out so there is less risk of infection

Surgical saws

Surgical saw

  • Used for amputation of the limbs during the 1800s for people who had gangrene or compound fractures
  • Led to many infections due to the lack of sterilisation
  • The handle of the saw was often made of wood and germs often collected and bred on the engravings on the wood leading to disease spreading

Modern surgical saw

  • Modern surgical saw
  • All metal so can be sterilized easily and has nowhere for germs to collect