Since the dawn of medicine, infection control has been the chief concern of physicians and other medical personnel. An injured person is most likely to develop an infection through an open wound, and so the physicians in earlier times relied upon harsh chemicals such as alcohol or sulfur to disinfect wounds or surgical tools.
Boiling water was also used for tools and clothing, and still is today. Boiling objects for several minutes can kill off most harmful organisms, but you could not pour boiling water on the wound, of course. It was soon realized that cleansing the wound or surgical area prior to incision was beneficial using topical astringents such as iodine mixtures and alcohol.
Sterilization at first was accomplished with surgical instruments by astringents or fire, both of which were effective, yet full sterilization was not complete. Alcohol could kill certain forms of bacteria from essential surgical autoclave tools, but other harmful species lived on. Flame would also be detrimental to the tools itself, yet nearly full sterilization was accomplished. There still had to be a better way, a way that guaranteed complete sterilization.
The autoclave, or sterilizer, has been around as long as pressure cookers have. When it was realized that pressurized steam could kill off harmful organisms from items such as canning jars and their contents, the autoclave began to be realized. Pressurized steam can kill off any organism with in a very short time.
The first autoclaves were stovetop models, affixed with valves and steam controls, along with a measuring system to get the right pressure and temperature. These primitive yet affective devices began the process of stopping infection in surgical procedures altogether. The steam was at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius), and the pressure grew to about three atmospheres, so that organisms such as bacteria would simply burst and die and viruses would disintegrate.
This soon led to the autoclave oven. This front loading device had its own form of heat…the first being gas heat, later electricity and heated elements. The door was a tightly sealed affair with a locking handle. It was large enough to accompany many instruments at once, usually laid in metal trays prior to sterilization. Most of the sterilization was manual, so timing was essential.
The autoclave then began the process of streamlining. Simple electronics were introduced so regulate and monitor temperatures and pressure. The autoclave items are now wrapped in a temperature-sensitive paper, which changes color when sterilization is successful. Larger autoclaves were being developed in the 1960’s, such that you could walk into them with the items needing to be cleaned.
Autoclaves now are computer-controlled and very efficient. Small ones are used in doctors’ offices all over the world. Developing countries the world over now benefit from the autoclave, thus reducing infection in their patients. This leads to a healthy recovery.
Without the autoclave, certain disciplines would have issues to overcome. Scientific laboratories that do research on harmful and beneficial organisms need sterile equipment to conduct their experiments aseptically. Contamination is also a problem with medical laboratories, which require sterile techniques in their testing regimen.
This useful tool is indeed a boon for society, something so simple and so easy to build. Without the autoclave, infection and contamination would be a serious issue worldwide.