Medical Advances

In the 19th century the most important advance in medical science was called (at the time) Listerism.  Simply put, Joseph Lister, working with  Louis Pasteur’s advances in microbiology and the discovery that bacteria cause putrefaction and infection, came to a conclusion:  In a medical setting the first line of defense is to keep the patient isolated from all such bacterial agents. There were two ways to achieve this: Antisepsis (using chemicals, usually carbolic) or asepsis (using heat) to sterilize.  In 1881 John Tyndall wrote

Living germs  … are the causes of putrefaction. Lister extended the generalization of Schwann from dead matter to living matter, and by this apparently simple step revolutionized the art of surgery. He changed it, in fact, from an art into a science (Tyndall).

In 1876 Lister came to the U.S. to lecture about his findings.

In 1878, Dr. Lewis Stimson performed the first public demonstration of an antiseptic surgery in the United States, using Baron Joseph Lister’s antiseptic technique while amputating a leg.

In 1881 President Garfield died not from the bullet fired by an assassin  but because the physicians treating him rejected Listerism and caused massive, systemic infection by probing his wounds with unsterilized instruments and dirty hands.

As the summer waned, Garfield was suffering from a scorching fever, relentless chills, and increasing confusion. The doctors tortured the president with more digital probing and many surgical attempts to widen the three-inch deep wound into a 20-inch-long incision, beginning at his ribs and extending to his groin. It soon became a super-infected, pus-ridden, gash of human flesh.

This assault and its aftercare probably led to an overwhelming infection known as sepsis, from the Greek verb, “to rot.” It is a total body inflammatory response to an overwhelming infection that almost always ends badly — the organs of the body simply quit working. The doctors’ dirty hands and fingers are often blamed as the vehicle that imported the infection into the body. But given that Garfield was a surgical and gunshot-wound patient in the germ-ridden, dirty Gilded Age, a period when many doctors still laughed at germ theory, there might have been many other sources of infection as well (Markel).

At least some people were paying attention, because in 1883 Dr. Stimson was asked to operate on former President Grant’s leg.

This photo was taken in the surgical amphitheater  at Bellevue in the early 1880s.  By modern standards it’s shocking (note especially the bloody floor), but it should have also been shocking to physicians in 1880.  I’m sure medical historians have written about the factors that led American physicians to reject the findings of Pasteur and Lister, but my guess is that it was simple hubris.

Because there were physicians and surgeons who accepted scientific findings and practiced antisepsis and asepsis, I felt justified in having Anna and Sophie act like sensible human beings and wash their hands. And instruments. And everything else. In carbolic.

Cheyne, W. W.  Antiseptic surgery: its principles, practice, history and results, London 1882.

Kessin, Richard H.  and Kenneth A. Forde. “How Antiseptic Surgery Arrived in America.” P&S 2007.  link.

Markel, Howard. The dirty, painful death of President James A. Garfield. PBS,  September 16, 2016. link

Pennington, T. H. “Listerism, its Decline and its Persistence: The introduction of aseptic surgical techniques in three British teaching hospitals, 1890–99.” Medical history 39.01 (1995): 35-60.

Tyndall, J. Essays on the floating-matter of the  air. London, 1881.



In 1879 the New York city government hired the Brush Electric Light Company to build a generating station at 25th Street. Electric street lights installed on Broadway between Union Square and Madison Square were first turned on on December 20, 1880.

The Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York was incorporated on December 17, 1880, to develop and install a central generating station. Edison’s system would consist of the large central power plant with its generators (called dynamos); voltage regulating devices; copper wires connecting the plant to other buildings; the wiring, switches, and fixtures in the interiors of those buildings; and the light bulbs themselves. The method of supplying electricity from a central station to illuminate buildings in a surrounding district had already been demonstrated by Edison in London in 1881, and self-contained plants were in place in some of Edison’s buildings and in a few private residences in New York, like that of J. P. Morgan.1

Alice Vanderbilt in her costume as Electric Light at the March 1883 costume ball
Alice Vanderbilt in her costume as Electric Light at the March 1883 costume ball

As could be predicted, electricity caught the attention and interest of the public — most especially the rich, who looked forward to the day when the could light their homes with something more than candles. At the infamous costume ball given by Alva Vanderbilt, her own costume (a Venetian princess) was upstaged by that of her sister-in-law, Alice Claypoole Gwynne (wife of Cornelius Vanderbilt) who came as electric light in a gown that was battery-wired to illuminate itself and the diamonds  sewn into the costume.

Technological advancements that resulted from Edison’s inventions were not popular with everyone. This is an excerpt from a letter to the editor of a Philadelphia paper:

August 1882:

No resident west of Broad Street desires the electric light. Would any one of the editors or owners of the daily paper like one in front of his private dwelling? Would Mayor King or any members of Council be delighted with one in front of his sleeping chamber? There is no city in the world where it would be tolerated in a street occupied almost entirely by private residences as West Chestnut Street is. Do you admire the six red poles in each square?

Derks, Scott. Working Americans, 1880-1999. Volume II the Middle Class. Millerton, NY: Grey House Pub, 2001. Print. Gale Virtual Reference Library.