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The Noble Autoclave

The Noble Autoclave

Do you know what an autoclave is? I had heard of them but thought that they might be some kind of cutting instrument—claving something in two, for instance. ( I was thinking of “cleave”. “Clave” is not even an English word. It is Spanish for code.) In my Biodesign world, it is actually a way to sterilize scientific equipment. In short, it is like a really intense sauna for lab equipment. You can stick a beaker in there and it will sterilize it by bombarding it with high-pressure steam for 15-20 minutes or so at 121 degrees C or 249 degrees F. Clean as a sterilized whistle.

Charles Chamberland (1851 – 1908) is the guy who gets the credit for inventing it. Even more interestingly, he gets credit for having come up with a vaccine for chicken cholera. He went on vacation and forgot to inject the disease into some chickens (which he was supposed to do.) When he got back from wherever Parisians go on holiday, he saw the jar of bacteria sitting there, un-injected (and rejected) and he thought, “What the heck, no one will know. I’ll just inject them now.” Lo and behold, they didn’t die but kept scratching in the dirt and clucking away. He was working with Louis Pasteur who told him to inject some new bacteria into those chickens and again, they didn’t die. They had discovered that a weaker version of a bacteria could actually cure the disease and be used as a vaccine. Vacations are good.

Charles built on the inventions of one Denis Papin (1647 – c. 1713), another Frenchman, who engaged in all things steam. His precursor to the autoclave was something he called a “steam digester, which was used to extract fat from bones in order to make them brittle enough to be ground for bone meal. I don’t know about you, but somehow I find the name “steam digester” really funny.

Of course I didn't know any of this when I decided to do a little art project where I needed to sterilize a plastic man. You know, one of those see-through plastic men that you usually see in science class that has all of his organs exposed? More soon on that!