In microbiological terms, sterilization has been performed for thousands of years and probably ever since the preservative qualities of salt were discovered. Long before the development of water treatment, many people had to sterilize water by boiling it before it was safe to drink.
An ancient tradition
More than 4,000 years ago, during the era of Ancient Egypt, copper was also allegedly used as a sterilization method for the treatment of headaches and other common ailments, while the Roman author Pliny the Elder even mixed copper with honey to destroy intestinal worms.
Since the Industrial Revolution
Following the fall of the Roman Empire, however, innovation and technological progress halted, and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages. However, after the cultural revolution of the European Renaissance was the European Enlightenment, when philosophers, scientists, writers and other influential figures began to steer society into a new era of discovery and understanding, following on from where their Roman counterparts had left more than 1,000 years earlier.
Three French enlightenment figures that changed the world
It was in 1809, four years after the Battle of Trafalgar, that the French inventor Nicolas Appert discovered that it was possible to sterilize fruit and vegetables in glass jars before heating them. In the late 19th century, another French microbiologist by the name of Charles Chamberland embarked on an ambitious filtration project that would soon lead to the invention of a device that could heat instruments in high pressure saturated steam at a temperature of 121 degrees Celsius, the autoclave, which is still widely used today.
By the 1830s, when Britain suffered a severe cholera epidemic, the physician William Henry began to use heat to sterilize clothing, based on his pioneering research that heat would render the germs harmless and could prevent the outbreak from spreading. By the 1880s, hospitals in France began to administer dry heat sterilization, while German troops had already began to use antiseptic methods during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.
Since the 20th century
In 1930, Werner Hangarter, a German physician found out that copper miners from Finland did not suffer from arthritis, which gave him reason to investigate this fact further and conclude that the sodium salicylate and copper chloride could be used in conjunction to treat the symptoms of arthritis. By the 1940s, the engineer Percy Spencer found that foods could be cooked with microwave energy, leading to the invention of the microwave oven shortly afterwards, while in 1963 the sterilant Glutaraldehyde received approval by the US’s Environment Protection Agency for sterilizing heat-sensitive instruments.
Since the 1950s, many people have begun sterilizing baby bottles to protect their babies from harmful bacteria, which typically involves leaving the equipment in a sterilizing solution for a minimum of half an hour, changing each solution every 24 hours. The UK’s National Health Service still advocates this method, although there is some debate as to the necessity of bottle sterilization, particularly for older babies.
The future – automation?
If more hospitals and other medical facilities began to use intelligent control systems and automation in the coming years, this could pave the way for more common medical procedures and processes being performed by machines as opposed to humans, which could potentially boost efficiencies and help reduce budget costs. Whether this would include sterilization techniques remains to be seen.
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Ashley Mooney is the Managing Director for Andersen Products Ltd, which provides Ethylene Oxide sterilization solutions for the life science industries