Abstract A survey of historical documents indicates that some notions of disinfection, sterilization and preservation procedures were known from ancient times. These documents included explorers' accounts of the lifestyle of cultures without a written history. Although the discoveries were empirical, they were based on shrewd observation. Eighteenth and nineteenth century landmarks in the use of disinfection, sterilization and preservation techniques include a patent for the use of tar to preserve ships' timbers granted in 1716. Eau de Javel, the first hypochlorite, was described in 1774, and a food sterilization process, appertization, was invented in 1810. In the field of radiation sterilization it is surprising that within one or two years after the discovery of radioactivity, 1879, and X-rays, 1895, these phenomena were being examined for their effect on micro-organisms and were found to be lethal. The component of light which was lethal was found to reside in the ultra-violet region of the spectrum. This was published in 1903. Thus the ideas which gave rise to ultra-violet sterilization, 60Co radiation and particle accelerated sterilization were known by the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. A seminal paper on disinfection dynamics appeared in 1897. Mode of action studies made a serious start at the beginning of this century.