The Rochester Steam Sterilizer

Significance: The copper-lined medical instrument sterilizer was used in the 1950s by Columbia Coast Mission nurses at the Whaletown medical clinic.

Date Range: circa 1907

Place of Manufacture: Wilmot Castle & Co, Rochester, N.Y.

Accession Number: 2012.1

Location: Permanent collection, storage

Donor: Jan Boas

Wilmot Castle (1855-1941) founded Wilmot Castle & Co. in Rochester, N.Y., in 1883; it was incorporated in 1903 as Wilmot Castle Co. The firm manufactured sterilizers and bacteriological apparatus for laboratory, medical, dental and hospital use as well as for the home.

From ancient times, and throughout history, different methods and materials have been used as anti-infectants. In 3000 BC, the Egyptians used pitch and tar as antiseptics. In later years the fumes from burning sulfur were found to cleanse objects of infectious material.

In the 1860s great strides in the understanding of pathogens were made when the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur wrote extensively on how germs cause disease and the English physician, Joseph Lister, developed a technique that used carbolic acid as a spray to disinfect instruments. During the late 1800s, steam sterilization began to be used.

The Rochester Steam Sterilizer is a simple version of the Autoclave, which was invented by Charles Chamberland, in 1879. Around that time, researchers started to understand the advantages of sterile surgery, and doctors needed a more reliable sterilization method than open flaming. The Autoclave’s benefits were soon evident, and it became an essential part of every clinic and hospital. A very basic Autoclave is similar to a pressure cooker; both use the power of steam to kill bacteria, spores and germs resistant to boiling water and powerful detergents.

Steam is an effective sterilant because it carries enough heat to destabilize and destroy the cell walls or proteins of living material. Air, in contrast, carries less heat and is less reliable in this regard. (For the same reason, a person can withstand a dry sauna at the boiling point of water, 212 degrees F, but would literally cook to death in a steam room at that same temperature.)