Skip to content

    Recently Viewed

      Listening...

      FINAL LEDE- The 1888 Johnson & Johnson Manual That Changed Surgery for the Better- Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment and surgical products - compressed

      The 1888 Johnson & Johnson manual that changed surgery for the better

      In honor of the World Health Organization’s Save Lives: Clean Your Hands campaign, we look at how the company helped usher in the concept of sterile surgery at a time when physicians weren’t even in the habit of scrubbing in.

      Share Article
      share to

      Imagine you’re at the hospital for a surgical procedure and the physician shows up wearing a dirty coat. Worse yet: He doesn’t take the time to wash his hands.

      You’d probably be more than just a little worried, right?

      Believe it or not, this was a common scenario little more than a century ago—until 1888, when Johnson & Johnson helped introduce the concept of sterile surgery by publishing a first-of-its-kind educational manual, Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment, which explained how to prevent the spread of infection-causing microorganisms during surgery.

      Germs? What germs? A look at the medical landscape in 1888

      Although it may seem like common sense today, using sterile surgical supplies and instruments during operations to help prevent potentially life-threatening complications was an entirely new concept in the late 1800s—and there were many critics.

      Advice for Sterilizing a Kitchen Table in Johnson & Johnson’s Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment Guidebook

      Image courtesy of Johnson & Johnson Archives

      “Some people found it hard to believe that invisible germs were causing the sky-high rates of postsurgical infections during that time,” explains Margaret Gurowitz, Johnson & Johnson’s Chief Historian. “And surgeons who did want to try antiseptic surgery often lacked the resources and the technical know-how.”

      Realizing there was a public health need, company founder Robert Wood Johnson and his brothers—who pioneered such mass-produced modern surgical materials as sterilized sutures and aseptic gauze—decided to publish a guidebook for those surgeons.

      They enlisted the help of a scientist named Fred Kilmer, who owned a pharmacy near Johnson & Johnson’s headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Kilmer—who would later become the company’s scientific director—in turn asked several leading practitioners of the day to contribute to the manual. In addition to featuring step-by-step instructions for how to perform antiseptic surgery, Modern Methods of Antiseptic Wound Treatment also included advice for sterilizing common household objects, such as a kitchen table (shown above), since many doctors didn’t have access to hospital operating rooms.

      The book also urged physicians to trade out their never-washed black frock coats—traditional surgeon’s garb at the time—for clean white jackets (sound familiar?), and to wash their hands thoroughly before beginning a procedure.

      The combination of the manual and the company’s ready-to-use sterile products put modern surgical practices within the reach of most doctors and hospitals for the first time.
      Margaret Gurowitz

      Spreading the word about sterile surgery

      Within a matter of months, Johnson & Johnson had distributed 85,000 copies of the manual—free of charge—to doctors, surgeons and retail pharmacists across the United States. And by 1891, the manual had been translated into both Spanish and French. Ultimately, 4.5 million copies were circulated worldwide.

      “The booklet became one of the leading treatises on how to do antiseptic surgery,” Gurowitz says. “The combination of the manual and the company’s ready-to-use sterile products put modern surgical practices within the reach of most doctors and hospitals for the first time.”

      And that tradition continues today with such free digital manuals as the Johnson & Johnson Wound Care Resource™ App, which outlines how to properly care for wounds—using sterile practices, of course.

      Learn more about the World Health Organization’s Save Lives: Clean Your Hands campaign, which is a global call to action for health workers to help prevent sepsis.

      When you’ve been innovating for over 135 years …

      Johnson & Johnson has a virtual museum where you can learn more fun facts about its rich history.

      More from Johnson & Johnson

      Health & wellness
      3D human heart anatomy illustrations

      Do you know what heart failure is? (Hint: It’s probably not what you think)

      For American Heart Month, learn about the advances Johnson & Johnson is making to help turn heart failure into heart recovery for the millions of adults in the U.S. living with the condition, which occurs when the heart muscle isn’t able to pump blood as well as it should.
      Innovation
      Two cardiac electrophysiologists performing a cardiac ablation procedure to treat AFib

      What is cardiac ablation?

      For American Heart Month, learn how Johnson & Johnson is innovating to help treat the millions of people who are living with atrial fibrillation and other conditions that cause an irregular heartbeat.
      Latest news
       Biomedical scientist Robert Langer headshot

      Biomedical scientist Robert Langer receives the 2023 Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research

      Each year, Johnson & Johnson honors a scientist currently working in academia, industry or a scientific institute who has made a significant contribution toward the improvement of public health.
      You are now leaving jnj.com. The site you’re being redirected to is a branded pharmaceutical website. Please click below to continue to that site.