Victorian scientific thinking evolved from the primitive miasma theory based on odor to an advanced bacterial understanding. Although actions taken to improve health were often founded upon faulty theories, the standard of living was nevertheless improved. By the end of the century Victorians understood the need for antiseptic surgery, anesthetic, and general cleanliness. Through the research and innovation of Joseph Lister, Pasteur, Snow, Budd, and Jenner theories were refined and created to further the cause of medicine.
Three primary theories prevailed in Victorian medical and scientific thinking. The miasma theory was based on the concept that internal diseases were caused by miasmas, or noxious odors. (Mitchell, Victorian Britain 492) Although this theory is obviously flawed, actions based upon the miasma notion benefited health in the cities. Sewers were constructed and improved to prevent the foul odors. Garbage piles and sewage was tended to in order to make the city smell better, and therefore the Victorian were inadvertently removing bacteria, the true cause of the diseases of the time. However, in some cases removing the sewage only complicated the situation further. Often the sewage was flushed directly into the local water supply, which increased any bacteria problem.
In 1849 William Budd and John Snow introduced an opposing concept, the bacterial theory, by explaining that cholera, for instance, was a living organism that multiplied in the intestine. This radical view was rejected at the time.
When Louis Pasteur published his Germ Theory in 1861, which was along the same lines as the bacterial theory, it too was not accepted. Most people simply could not fathom the concept of diseases being caused by organisms, which they could not see. Also, men famous for their sanitary campaigns that improved conditions had popularized the miasma theory with the general public. Some people, however, recognized value of the germ theory, and adapted their practices. Joseph Lister began antiseptic surgery in the late 1860s. Other practitioners followed his example, boiling and scrubbing instruments before and after operations. The post-operative complications that still surfaced after cleaning the instruments are thought to have been caused by certain types of bacteria, unaffected by the antiseptics used, that thrived in the hospital setting. (Mitchell, Daily Life 195) By 1890, though, enough scientific research existed to convince most sensible people of the existence of germs, and the miasma theory became obsolete. Microscopes had been used to identify the bacteria responsible for the most infamous diseases of the era. (Mitchell, Victorian Britain 492)
In 1852 a prominent English surgeon, Lister,was assigned to the task of reducing hospital infections. Joseph Lister devised the first way to effectively study bacteria: the mysterious growth that was invisible yet deadly. Lister realized that carbolic acid inhibits bacteria growth on the tissues, and therefore protects them during operations. (Traux 239) At first, he attempted to disinfect an entire area using evaporated carbolic acid to purify the air. Meeting with failure, Lister then turned to applying the acid directly onto the wound. (Reed 272) Lister boiled and scrubbed all instruments, tools, hands, and anything that would come into contact with the wound. Lister realized that his carbolic acid technique was feasible only in the few well-equipped hospitals of the time. Therefore, he was perpetually seeking different, simpler disinfectants. (Traux 240) Not until 1870, however, did the antiseptic idea firmly catch; prominent doctors had ridiculed it publicly until then. (Mitchell, Victorian Britain 492) In 1877 Lister demonstrated that surgery using antiseptic reduced the mortality rate by fifty percent. Lister was made baron by Queen Victoria and is the namesake of Listerine. (Reed 272)
Edward Jenner, an English countryside doctor, is credited with perhaps the most relieving medical discovery of the time period. He discovered that by "introducing cowpox matter to the bloodstream gave protection without the risk imposed by the current practice of variolation (inoculation with the small pox virus)." His vaccine spread quickly across the country, and led to the mandatory vaccine which was eventually imposed by the government. (Mitchell, Victorian Britain 833)