Phenol is a simple aromatic molecule made up of a benzene ring attached to an OH group. Though, there are possibly hundreds of thousands of different types of phenols; however, each one does contain the basic benzene ring and OH group structure. Some are man-made while some are naturally occurring, although there are many different uses for different phenols. For example, trichlorophenol and hexylresorcinols, which are man-made, have antibacterial properties and are used in today‘s antiseptics, while naturally occurring vanillin is a phenol that has become the active ingredient in one of the world’s most popular flavoring compound, vanilla. Another active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is the phenol found in Cannabis sativa, the Indian hemp plant, or, marijuana plant. THC in marijuana has been used to help patients suffering pain and nausea from cancer, AIDS, an other illnesses.
Before the medical discovery of the phenol molecule, people’s outlook on hospitals were very different. Though they knew they needed a doctor, hospitals were such infectious and germ-infested places, going to one with an open wound being operated on in one almost always guaranteed a dangerous and potentially life-threatening bacterial infection. “Hospital disease” as these infections like gangrene and sepsis were referred to, killed at lease 40% of amputee patients in hospitals. If it was an army hospital the number of deaths rose to nearly 70% for amputees. Joseph Lister, after reading Louis Pasteur’s paper on germs, decided he could maybe change what most had decided was the inevitable. He began by using the product carbolic acid which comes from coal tar. He eventually was able to retrieve from the carbolic acid its main ingredient phenol which he made a paste from and a less concentrated solution in water that he cleaned surgical equipment with, washed patient’s skin and the surgeon’s hands with, and also had it continuously spraying onto the incision during surgery. Eventually he created a machine that would spray a mist of the carbolic acid solution into the air throughout the length of the surgery. The results of his working with phenol soon spread throughout the world, changing the face of hospitals forever.
Though as time went on phenol was found to be toxic and had harmful effects on some surgeons who were so greatly exposed to the substance, this discovery by Joseph Lister has been a very effective game changer to all hospitals. Before he introduced his carbolic acid and eventual phenol to kill the bacteria, people must have been overcome with very real fear. Not necessarily the fear of an accident and an injury, but of the hospital where today people tend to feel safe and generally taken care of. Now at least people know that a care facility’s very best, will most likely keep you breathing. In the late 1800s, before phenol that could block out infection and keep it away people knew that “hospital disease” was just as likely to kill a person as was a terrible injury or other mishap resulting in a trip to the emergency room.
In Napoleon’s Buttons at the end of the chapter the author says that “His [Joseph Lister] antiseptic phenol was ultimately derived from lignin.”. At first glance the appears to be a large jump from carbolic acid to lignin in plants, but further study of the text helps to prove the point that phenol and vanilla are indeed connected. The lignin from wood pulp that is used to create synthetic vanilla is found in coal that forms over time under high pressures and moderate temperatures. From the burning of this coal to provide fuel for homes and industries and black liquid called coal tar forms. This is the tar from which Joseph Lister originally brought forth carbolic acid, thus connecting phenol and lignin. Although saying that phenol is derived from lignin does seem stretched because the coal that burns to form the coal tar can form from other decomposing vegetation and plant parts which would also result in the coal without lignin.
All arguments aside, Phenol was a pivotal discovery in history that without a doubt opened doors to endless possibilities for many different industries.