Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister was a British surgeon who introduced antiseptics into surgery.

Joseph Lister c1855

Joseph Lister c1855

Joseph Lister was the fourth of seven children of Joseph Jackson Lister and Isabella Harris. He was born in Upton, Essex on 5 April 1827 and was educated at home until the age of eleven with active encouragement from both parents. He continued his education at two Quaker schools and by the age of sixteen he had decided to pursue a career in the medical profession.

Lister studied at University College, London from 1844 and obtained his BA in 1847. When Robert Liston performed the first surgical procedure under ether at the university in 1846, Lister was present. He enrolled in a medical degree in 1848 and graduated as a bachelor of medicine in 1852, becoming a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.

In 1853, Lister travelled to Edinburgh to visit the professor of clinical surgery, James Syme, and to study his methods. The visit led to him being appointed Syme’s assistant and house surgeon for a year before becoming assistant surgeon at the Royal Infirmary in 1856. Also in 1856, Lister married Syme’s eldest daughter, Agnes, who took a great interest in his career and assisted in his research.

In 1860, Lister was elected to the chair of surgery at Glasgow University and became a fellow of the Royal Society. The following year he became a surgeon at the Glasgow Infirmary. At this time, cleanliness in hospitals was not seen as a necessity and up to fifty percent of patients died of sepsis following operations.

Lister’s research while at Glasgow University led him to believe that sepsis was caused by a dust settling in a open wound, although it was only in 1865, when he was introduced to the work of Louis Pasteur, that he accepted that this dust was actually living germs. To prevent germs from entering a patient during operations, Lister advocated creating a chemical barrier between the wound and the surgical tools (or, in Lister’s mind, the wound and the air).

His search for an effective barrier led him to a solution of carbolic acid which was known as a disinfectant. He insisted that surgical instruments and the operating theatre were treated with the solution and that surgeons should wash their hands and put on clean gloves before every operation. The results showed a decrease in the number of deaths from sepsis following operations.

Lister’s views were not universally accepted by other surgeons, especially in the UK and the USA, although when he succeeded Syme at Edinburgh his lectures and clinics were popular with students and visitors. In 1877, Lister was appointed professor of surgery at Kings College, London and, as he developed his theories through experimentation, opinion gradually changed. Practices changed over time due to the work of many others, but supporters of Lister insisted that aseptic surgery was, in the words of William Watson Cheyne, “introduced by Mr Lister”.

In 1883, Lister was created a baronet. He retired in 1893, a year after the death of his wife. He was still active after his retirement, however, becoming the president of the Royal Society in 1895. In 1897 he became Baron Lister of Lyme Regis and was one of the original twelve members of the Order of Merit in 1902. He also received the freedom of the City of London in 1907.

Lister moved to Walmer, Kent in 1908 and died there on 10 February 1912 at the age of eighty-four. After a funeral service in Westminster Abbey, he was buried next to his wife in Hampstead cemetery.

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