Recognising a legacy for the community – Dr Sarah Hooper reviews ‘Chemical Disinfection and Sterilisation’

Posted on May 16, 2024   by Microbiology Society

In 2020, the Microbiology Society was generously left with an extensive and wide-ranging selection of scientific works by long-standing member, Dr Bernard Dixon. Bernard was a well-known scientific communicator, perhaps most notably as the Editor of New Scientist in the 1970s.


We were honoured that Bernard chose to leave his rare collection to us and Council agreed that the majority would be sold to a specialist book collector. The revenue generated was donated to our Unlocking Potential fund, the first grants from which have gone on to support ten microbiologists facing career-limiting challenges.

We retained a selection of the microbiology titles and recently invited Council members to select and review a book of their choice. We are releasing these reviews as a special series, in recognition of all those who choose to leave the Society a legacy, as well as those who support our fundraising activity, including the Unlocking Potential Fund, in other ways.

We need the help of more people across our community to support others who might, in turn, one day provide solutions to global challenges. You can find out about leaving the Society a legacy or donating to Unlocking Potential or you can get in touch to talk to us about the Society’s fundraising activities.

In the second blog of this series, Council member Dr Sarah Hooper of Cardiff Metropolitan University, UK reviews ‘Chemical Disinfection and Sterilisation’ by S. Rideal and E. K. Rideal, published by Edward Arnold & Co London, 1921:

“Modern science becomes daily more specialised” as penned by Rideal, S., and Rideal E. K., in 1921 still resonates profoundly. Their book beckons readers to embark on a journey into the “mysterious country wherein lies the secrets of the laws which govern the actions of germicides on microorganisms”.  As I delved into their insights, I found myself captivated by the blend of historical approaches to disinfection and the enduring principles that remain relevant in contemporary microbiology.

Even a century later, amid the lingering shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, the discourse on disease transmission and containment from the 1920s feels eerily familiar. The authors' recognition of asymptomatic individuals as "dangerous...disease carriers" and the challenges of adhering to quarantine or lockdown regulations echo sentiments that persist today. It's a reminder that while our tools have advanced, the challenges of infectious disease management endure.

The recommended methods for room sanitation outlined in the text may raise eyebrows in modern health and safety circles. From the casual use of formalin to disinfect rooms, deemed non-poisonous beyond mild irritation, to the hazardous handling of phenol for similar purposes, these practices highlight the stark evolution in safety standards over the decades. Sharing these anecdotes at a recent lab meeting evoked both amusement and gratitude for the strides we've made in chemical safety and responsible handling.

Opening a chapter on internal disinfection, I couldn't help but feel a sense of caution. The recommendations presented were a curious blend of innovation and antiquity, including the use of sulphuric orangeade as a prophylactic measure during cholera season. Another intriguing suggestion involved an elaborate handwashing procedure using a paste of bleaching powder, washing soda, and water. Doctors of the era were advised to scrub their hands for five minutes using this concoction. Thankfully, this has been surpassed by chlorhexidine or povidone-iodine-containing soaps, offering efficacy without the harmful side effects.

Amid the antiquated practices, there are timeless gems of wisdom regarding disinfection. Strategies like ozone decontamination and topical hypochlorous acid application, touted in this book for their efficacy, are now experiencing a resurgence of interest in light of antimicrobial resistance. It's a testament to the enduring relevance of century-old principles of disinfection and the nature of scientific innovation.

As we navigate the complexities of modern microbiology, it's humbling to recognise the foundation laid by our predecessors. Their insights, though rooted in a different era, continue to shape our understanding, and guide our research endeavours. Perhaps, in another century, future microbiologists will look back at our innovations with the same mix of awe and familiarity, realising that the solutions to tomorrow's challenges may lie in the wisdom of the past.

Review kindly provided by Sarah Hooper.