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Joseph Lister

pioneer of antiseptic surgery

Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister was born in Upton, England, on April 5, 1827. His father, Joseph Jackson Lister, invented the achromatic microscope in 1830, and young Joseph developed an interest in science at an early age. He was educated at Quaker Schools (Hitchin in Hertfordshire and then Tottenham near London), entered University College, London, in 1844, and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1847. He began his medical training at University College Hospital in 1848, and received his medical degree in 1852.

In 1860, Lister was appointed Professor of Surgery at the University of Glasgow. Here, he found the mortality rate following surgical procedures to be as high as 50 percent, and sometimes higher. At that time surgery was a last resort because of "surgical diseases" which would frequently kill all the patients in a hospital ward. These diseases were usually blamed on gases which presumably hovered about hospitals and caused wounds to rot.

While doing his residency, Lister was put in charge of several patients who had contracted gangrene after undergoing surgery. He carefully observed the course of the disease in each patient and the effects of treatment upon it and studied samples of the gangrene under a microscope, and came to believe that something in the surgical wound itself rather than in the air was causing the disease. His research led to his first important scientific paper, An Essay on the Early Stages of Inflammation, in 1857.

In 1865, Lister read a paper by Louis Pasteur that proved that microbes cause decay and that those microbes do not "spontaneously generate." Applying Pasteur's theory to wound infection, Lister decided that the best way to prevent infection during and after surgery was to prevent germs from getting to the wound. He began his studies by treating compound fracture wounds with carbolic acid (typically used by hospitals to kill sewage odors). He would apply the acid directly to the wound, set the bone, and then reapply acid once a day until the danger of infection had passed. The procedure worked well at preventing infection, but it also left the flesh around the wound slightly burned, so he began working on a way to dilute the acid without lessening its effectiveness. This research resulted in a device that turned carbolic acid diluted with water into a fine mist that was used to sterilize the air in the operating room as well as the area around the patient after surgery. This method also lowered infection rates, but like the prior method also subjected the skin to slight burns. After another period of study, Lister finally realized that the best results were obtained by sterilizing the operating room surfaces, instruments and surgeon's hands; sterilizing the air was not necessary. He published On the Antiseptic Principle in the Practice of Surgery in 1867, and by 1869 the post-surgical mortality rate at Glasgow Hospital had dropped from over 50 percent to 15 percent.

Lister stayed at Glasgow until 1869, when he was named Professor of Surgery at the University of Edinburgh; he left Edinburgh for King's College, London, in 1877, and remained there until 1894. In 1883, he was made a baronet by Queen Victoria -- the only surgical operation she ever underwent, the removal of an abscess, was performed by Lister. He retired from practice in 1896, and was elevated to the peerage in 1897

Sir Joesph Lister died in Walmer, England, on February 10, 1912.

See Also

Louis Pasteur
Queen Victoria

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This page was last updated on 02/10/2019.