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Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister

Joseph Lister, the 'Father of Antiseptic Surgery' was born on April 5, 1827. He came from a prosperous Quaker home in West Ham, Essex, England.

His father, Joseph Jackson Lister, was a very successful wine merchant and amateur scientist. Joseph Jackson Lister’s design of a microscope lens which did not distort colors opened the way for the microscope to be used as a serious scientific tool.

Lister graduated with honors as Bachelor of Medicine, subsequently entering the Royal College of Surgeons at the age of 26.

In 1854, Lister became both first assistant to and friend of surgeon James Syme at the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in Scotland.

Joseph Lister c. 1855

Lister married Syme's daughter, Agnes. On their honeymoon, they spent three months visiting leading hospitals and medical universities in France and Germany.

Throughout the Listers’ long and happy, but childless, marriage, Agnes assisted her husband in the laboratory helping him with experiments and writing up his notes.

After marrying Agnes, Lister joined her as a member of the Episcopal church. A committed Christian, he remained a faithful member of that denomination for the remainder of his life.

By 1865, Lister was a professor of surgery at the University of Glasgow. He was well aware that nearly half of his amputation cases died from infection in his male accident ward. Lister became aware of a paper published by the French chemist, Louis Pasteur outlining his pioneering work on pasteurization. From this he believed that the infections might be caused by a pollen-like dust carried through the air. Although Lister was not correct in his thinking in 1865, he decided to use a coal-tar product called carbolic acid to protect the area of operation from infection by the surgeon's hands and instruments.

The first patient to benefit from Lister's antiseptic, was eleven-year-old James Greenlees who fell while playing and suffered a compound fracture of the tibia. Six weeks later the young patient returned home with his leg perfectly healed. Lister adopted this procedure for all his operations using carbolic acid as a powerful antiseptic for dressings and instruments, and as a spray in the air of the operating theater.

Lister spraying carbolic acid over a patient.

On March 13, 1867 Joseph Lister published an article in The Lancet outlining his discovery that sterilizing wounds reduced post-operative infections and his methods were soon adopted in Germany. Britain was slower at adopting his techniques, some surgeons were utilizing them in the 1870s but many were still ignoring elementary sanitary precautions and by 1890 half of the hospitalized cases were still dying of infections caught in the hospital.

One one occasion, Joseph Lister had to perform a delicate operation to remove a fishbone, which was stuck in a rich lord's throat. The extremely thankful patient asked the great surgeon how much he owed. Lister replied, with a smile "My lord, maybe we could settle for half of what you would give me if the bone was still fixed in your throat."

The surgeon Joseph Lister in 1902.
Lister retired in 1893 after a long and outstanding career.  He died on February 10, 1912, at his country home in Walmer, Kent at the age of 84. After a funeral service at Westminster Abbey, he was buried at West Hampstead Cemetery, London in a plot to the south-east of central chapel.

The World Book Encyclopedia says of Lister that ‘Throughout his life, he remained a gentle, shy, unassuming man, firm in his purpose because he humbly believed himself to be directed by God."


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