At the 1876 Philadelphia Medical Congress, Dr. Joseph Lawrence was not the only American health worker impressed with Sir Joseph Lister’s germ-disease theory. A thirty-one-year-old pharmacist from Brooklyn, Robert Johnson, had his life changed by the eminent British surgeon’s lecture.
Lister deplored the use of pressed sawdust surgical dressings made from wood-mill wastes. He himself disinfected every bandage he used in surgery by soaking it in an aqueous solution of carbolic acid.
Johnson, a partner in the Brooklyn pharmaceutical supply firm of Seabury & Johnson, was acquainted with the sawdust dressing, as well as with an array of other nonsterile paraphernalia used in American hospitals. He persuaded his two brothers- James, a civil engineer, and Edward, an attorney- to join him in his attempt to develop and market a dry, prepackaged antiseptic surgical dressing along the lines that Listen had theoretically outlined at the congress.
By the mid-1880s, the brothers had formed their own company, Johnson & Johnson, and produced a large dry cotton-and-gauze dressing. Individually sealed in germ-resistant packages, the bandages could be shipped to hospitals in remote areas and to doctors on military battlefields, with sterility guaranteed.
The Johnson brothers prospered in the health care field. In 1893, they introduced American mothers to the fresh scent of Johnson’s Baby Powder, including it as a giveaway item in the multipurpose Maternity Packets sold to midwives.
On the horizon, though, was the sterile product that soon would appear in home medicine chests worldwide.