In the same year that America’s civil war ended, 1865, the British surgeon and scientist Joseph Lister transformed the treatment of traumatic wounds from a probable death sentence into a reliable healing methodology. Surgery was so dangerous at the time that it was on the verge of being outlawed entirely. Lister himself noted that 45-50% of amputation patients died of infection.
Doctors knew this, but they didn’t know what infection is; most then believed it was caused by a toxic “miasma” (gas) released into the air by wounds. Their primary precaution was frequently airing out hospital wards. They didn’t wash hands or tools between surgeries and thought nothing of using linens and surgical coats stained with the blood of previous patients. They didn’t know about bacteria.
Joseph Lister in 1902
Lister may have been the first man to realize that infection is caused by bacteria, and he immediately came up with solutions and precautions still used today – not only the use of diluted carbolic acid (phenol) to disinfect wounds and surgical tools, but also practices such as making surgical tools out of non-porous materials. His choice of carbolic acid was far from obvious; it was at the time most available in the form of creosote, used to rot-proof railroad ties and reduce sewage stink, which was what made Lister think it might be a disinfectant (a concept he was inventing).
Photograph of Lister's carbolic acid sprayer
Lister was a professor and surgeon at the University of Glasgow when he read a paper by French chemist Louis Pasteur, who had understood that fermentation was caused by bacteria, and Lister quickly made the connections between fermentation, infection, and the use of creosote to de-stink sewage. He quickly tested his hypothesis, applying bandages dipped in carbolic acid to wounds with impressive results – clean wounds healed better and faster. Immediately, he instructed all the surgeons under his supervision to wear clean gloves and wash their hands and instruments with a diluted carbolic acid solution. Subsequently, he developed further practices for reducing infection in the operating room and became known as the “father of antiseptic surgery” or, according to some, “the father of modern surgery”; most of the surgeries performed today were too dangerous to consider before Lister’s discovery.
Lister was born a Quaker in Upton, Essex county England, where his father was a scientist who made some breakthroughs in the production of microscope lenses. Lister attended undergrad at the University of London because it was one of the only schools willing to accept Quakers. Later, in medical school, he became the assistant and friend of famous surgeon James Syme, left the Quakers, and eventually married Syme’s daughter, who became his lifelong research partner.
Joseph lister spraying phenol over the wound while the doctors were performing an operation.
After his wife died in 1893, Lister lost all interest in his work. But a few years later, he was called on when King Edward VII required an appendectomy, which had a very high risk of death at the time. Later, the king wrote to Lister that he felt sure he would not have lived if not for Lister’s work, and countless individuals today could say the same.
And yes, Listerine mouthwash was named after Lister in 1879, although Lister didn’t develop it. There are also several microorganisms named after him, including the pathogenic bacterium Listeria! So, until next time, keep washing your hands regularly, and thank Lister as you gargle.
“If a man is not to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to him, what is he to do, or what is he good for?” – Joseph Lister
“I trust I may be enabled in the treatment of patients always to act with a single eye to their good.” – Joseph Lister
“Next to the promulgation of the truth, the best thing I can conceive that man can do is the public recantation of an error.” – Joseph Lister
“Lister saw the vast importance of the discoveries of Pasteur. He saw it because he was watching on the heights, and he was watching there alone.” – Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt
The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris
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