April 5, 1827 - February 10, 1912
Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister was a famous British surgeon who
promoted the idea of sterile surgery while working at the
Glasgow Infirmary. He came from a prosperous Quaker home in
age of 25 he became a Bachelor of Medicine and entered the Royal
College of Surgeons. In 1854, Lister became first assistant
surgeon to James Syme (1799-1870), a leader of surgery in
England. The two became close friends and Lister ended up
marrying Syme's daughter Agnes, leaving the Quakers because his
religion did not permit alliances with nonmembers.
After six years he got a professorship of surgery at Glasgow. At
the time the usual explanation for wound infection was that the
exposed tissues were damaged by chemicals in the air or via a
stinking "miasma" in the air. The sick wards actually smelled
bad, not due to a "miasma" but due to the rotting of wounds.
Hospital wards were occasionally aired out at midday but
Florence Nightingale's doctrine of fresh air was still science
fiction then. Facilities for washing hands or the patient's
wounds did not exist and it was even considered unnecessary for
the surgeon to wash his hands before he saw a patient. This was
strange because the work of Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis and Oliver
Wendell Holmes were not heeded even though the parallel should
have been obvious.
Lister became aware of a paper published by Louis Pasteur which
showed that rotting and fermentation could occur without any
oxygen if micro-organisms were present. Lister confirmed this
with his own experiments. If micro-organisms were causing
gangrene, the problem was how to get rid of them. Pasteur
suggested three methods: to filter them out, to heat them up, or
expose them to chemical solutions. The first two were
inappropriate in a human wound so Lister experimented with the
Carbolic acid (phenol) had been in use as a means of deodorising
sewage, so Lister tested the results of spraying instruments,
the surgical incisions, and dressings with a solution of it.
Lister found that carbolic acid solution swabbed on wounds
markedly reduced the incidence of gangrene and subsequently
published a series of articles on the Antiseptic Principle of
the Practice of Surgery describing this procedure on March 16,
1867 in the journal The Lancet.
He also made surgeons wear clean gloves and wash their hands
before and after operations with 5% carbolic acid solutions.
Instruments were also washed in the same solution and assistants
sprayed the solution in the operating theatre.
Many of his contemporaries laughed at him but Lister was said to
have never bothered to reply and only heaved an occasional sigh
at the world's stupidity. His critics still believed in the
theory of spontaneous generation.
Lister left Glasgow in 1869 returning to Edinburgh as successor
to Syme as Professor of Surgery,at Edinburgh University and
continued to develop improved methods of antisepsis and
asepsis,]. His fame had spread by then and audiences of 400
often came to hear him lecture. He moved to King's College in
London and became the second man in England to operate on a
brain tumour. He also developed a method of repairing kneecaps
with metal wire and improved the technique of mastectomy. His
discoveries were greatly praised and he was made Baron Lister of
Lyme Regis and became one of the twelve original members of the
Order of Merit.
Lister retired from practice after his wife, who had long helped
him in research, died in 1893 during one of the few vacations
they allowed themselves. Studying and writing lost appeal for
him and he sank into religious melancholy. Despite suffering a
stroke, he still came into the public light from time to time.
Edward VII came down with appendicitis two days before his
coronation. The surgeons did not dare operate without consulting
England's leading surgical authority. The king later told Lister
"I know that if it had not been for you and your work, I
wouldn't be sitting here today".
A British Institution of Preventive Medicine, previously named
after Edward Jenner was renamed in 1899 in honour of Lister.
Two postage stamps were issued in September 1965 to honour
Lister for his contributions to antiseptic surgery.
As the germ theory of disease became more widely accepted, it
was realised that infection could be better avoided by
preventing bacteria from getting into wounds in the first place.
This led to the rise of sterile surgery. Some consider Lister
the father of modern antisepsis.
Listerine mouthwash is named after him for his work in
He credited Ignaz Semmelweis for earlier work in antiseptic
treatment: "Without Semmelweis, my achievements would be
The English surgeon Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister of Lyme
Regis (1827-1912), discovered the antiseptic technique, which
represents the beginning of modern surgery.
Born in Upton, Essex, on April 5, 1827, Joseph Lister was the
son of a wealthy wine merchant who developed an achromatic lens
for the microscope. As a student Lister did microscopic
research, and his acceptance of Louis Pasteur's work later may
be related to his familiarity with the process of fermentation
since childhood. After graduating from the University of London
in 1852, Lister began a surgical career in Edinburgh; in 1860 he
became professor of surgery at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow.
With the introduction of anesthesia in the 1840s operations had
become more frequent, but many patients died from infection
following surgery. Inflammation and suppuration (pus formation)
occurred in almost all accidental wounds and after surgery, and
more so when patients were treated at the hospital rather than
at home by a visiting surgeon. The reason was unknown, but it
was believed to be something in the air. As a result, wounds
were heavily dressed or irrigated with water to keep the air
out; operations were a last resort. The body's cavities (head,
chest, or abdomen) were practically never opened; injured limbs
were usually amputated.
Lister's research centred on the microscopic changes in tissue
that result in inflammation. When he read Pasteur's work on
germs in 1864, Lister immediately applied Pasteur's thinking to
the problem he was investigating. He concluded that inflammation
was the result of germs entering and developing in the wound.
Since Pasteur's sterilization by heat could not be applied to
the living organism, Lister sought a chemical to destroy the
That same year Lister read in the newspaper that the treatment
of sewage with crude carbolic acid had led to a reduction of
diseases among the people of Carlisle and among the cattle
grazing on sewage-treated fields. In 1865 he developed a
successful method of applying purified carbolic acid to wounds.
The technique of spraying the air in the operating room with
carbolic acid was only briefly used, as it was recognized that
airborne germs were not of primary importance. Lister perfected
the technical details of antisepsis and continued his research.
He developed the surgical use of sterile catgut and silk and
introduced gauze dressings. Antisepsis became a basic principle
for the development of surgery; amputations became infrequent,
as did death from infections; and new surgical procedures could
be planned and safely executed.
In 1869 Lister returned to Edinburgh, and in 1877 he was
appointed professor of surgery at King's College in London. He
won worldwide acclaim and honours, including honorary
doctorates, a baronetcy in 1882, and a peerage in 1897. After he
retired in 1893 he became foreign secretary of the Royal Society
and then its president from 1895 to 1900. He died at Walmer,
Kent, on Feb. 10, 1912. Although Lister's antiseptic method was
soon replaced by the use of asepsis, his work represented the
first successful application of Pasteur's theory to surgery and
marked the beginning of a new era.
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