Sir Watson's bust at Fetlar Interpretive Centre
Sir William Watson Cheyne
Diseases like tuberculosis were rife in the damp conditions of many 19th century households, and in the early-mid 19th century, ignorance and misunderstanding of the behaviour of germs and bacteria provided a background of unsanitary conditions in hospitals. Until the reforms effected by Florence Nightingale after the Crimean War, nursing standards were also largely unregulated, so that the general opinion was that anyone entering a hospital as a patient was unlikely to come out alive.
Pasteur's discoveries around 1860 regarding bacteria paved the way for the advances which Lister was to make. Prior to Lister's discoveries, it was widely believed that infection arose spontaneously from the air in dirty and poorly ventilated places. Pasteur's experiments showed that "it was not the gases of the air that the surgeon had to fear, but minute living particles floating in the air and settling on surrounding objects in the form of dust." (Cheyne, Sir W.W. Bt., Lister and his Achievement, London, 1925, p.9)
This led Lister to the conclusion that infection could probably be prevented by not allowing the bacteria to enter wounds before or after an operation and that, in cases where they had already entered a wound, they could be prevented from spreading. Lister worked on various solutions which could kill or inhibit the growth of these germs, finally settling on carbolic acid which was considered at the time to have a less detrimental effect on the surrounding tissue.
Lister's ideas were initially treated with considerable scepticism by the medical establishment, and were not taken into general use until much later. When William Watson Cheyne became involved with Lister's researches, he knew he was taking a considerable risk if he wanted to follow a career in medicine.
At Edinburgh University, William Watson Cheyne happened by chance upon Lister's lectures. He was so stimulated by Lister's ideas that he continued to follow the lectures and ultimately his enthusiasm came to Lister's attention. After a year's wait, during which Cheyne spent time at medical institutions in Vienna and Strasbourg, Cheyne took up post as Lister's House Surgeon, and was able to further Lister's work through research which helped confirm the latter's theory that infection of wounds could be prevented by keeping out bacteria with the use of an antiseptic solution.