In the mid-1800s, surgeons were wrestling with two problems that had plagued medicine for centuries. First, surgeries were incredibly painful for patients. So painful that, after hearing they needed surgery to survive a life-threatening injury or disease, a lot of people chose to commit suicide instead.
There’s an excellent episode of RadioLab that covers a brief history of anesthesia and how, to this day, we’re still not really sure how it works.
But then, in 1846 a dentist named William Morton discovered a gas that rendered his patients temporarily unconscious and unable to feel pain. It was a miracle for medicine.
Morton shared his findings with the world in November of 1846, and a mere eight months later, in June of 1847, anesthesia was being used in surgery rooms throughout most of the world.
The second major problem facing surgeons at that time was that many of the surgeries they performed led to fatal infections. This was not only gruesome, but it was also bad for business: dead people tend to not pay their hospital bills.
But by the 1860s, an English surgeon named Joseph Lister had the amazing idea that maybe you should wash your hands before …