Sunday, October 26, 2014


Do you already know what this is? Because I didn't. I was watching The Rachel Maddow Show the other night when it came up. She mentioned the word somewhat casually, as though we would have at least a basic understanding of its meaning, but frankly, it wasn't familiar. Luckily, she then explained it in more detail. Here's the segment.

Of course anyone who has watched any kind of dramatization of surgery knows about sterilized medical instruments, but I guess I'd never thought that much about how they get sterilized.

Basically, the autoclave is a kind of pressure cooker. Remember those? Apparently the microwave oven kind of wiped out their daily use, but my mom had one, and I remember being a little scared of it. According to a very helpful site called Explain that Stuff! the idea behind the autoclave and the pressure cooker is that the higher pressure inside forces the water to boil at a higher temperature, and for medical purposes, the resulting hotter steam kills microbes more effectively. (For kitchen purposes, things just cook faster.)

The autoclave has been with us for a long time--since 1879 as an actual object, invented by Louis Pasteur's colleague, Charles Chamberland, but as a concept for a lot longer. That's why I found it funny that I didn't know the word. Of course I had to look up the etymology, because I thought it was an odd name. I knew that "auto" had to do with self and "clave" probably had a relation to keys, But self-key didn't really get me very far. It's clever, though. It really means more like 'self locking' and the idea here is that the steam pressure causes it to seal itself at a certain point.

The Maddow show brought up the autoclave in relation to ebola, of course, and made note of a more recent use of them. Though in most places they are used to sterilize instruments, in a few specialized sites dedicated to caring for patients with infectious disease, they just go ahead and autoclave everything. Bedding, clothing, uniforms--I'm not exactly sure what they don't autoclave.

Presumably not the people. But you never know.


  1. You sent me on a real memory trip! In 1967 I was a volunteer Candystriper at the nearby hospital. My assignment was the Central Supply department deep in the basement. The paid staff pretty much ignored me, and only came out of their little office occasionally to roll carts of wrapped bundles in or out of the three autoclaves. Sometimes they sent bundles up the "dummy" dumbwaiter to the wards.Just the word "autoclave" set off scent memories of hot linens and masking tape.

  2. That's fantastic, Nancy. Makes writing this random stuff up all worthwhile.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I am associated with medical equipments and nice to see this informative blog. Thank you...

    autoclave manufacturer