Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister books and biography

Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister

Joseph Lister
Joseph Lister
Born April 5, 1827
Upton, Essex
Died February 10, 1912
Residence England
Nationality English
Field Surgeon
Institution University of London
Known for Promoting sterile surgery

Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister, OM , FRS (5 April 1827, Upton, Essex –10 February 1912) was an English surgeon who promoted the idea of sterile surgery while working at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. He successfully introduced carbolic acid (phenol) to sterilise surgical instruments and to clean wounds.


Early Life and College

Joseph Lister came from a prosperous Quaker home in Upton, Essex, the son of the pioneer of the compound microscope, Joseph Jackson Lister and Isabella Harris.

He attended the University of London, one of only a few institutions which was open to Quakers at that time.He initially studied the Arts but at the age of 25 became a Bachelor of Medicine and entered the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1854, Lister became first assistant surgeon to James Syme, at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The two became close friends and Lister ended up marrying Syme's daughter Agnes, a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church, leaving the Quakers[1], perhaps because his religion did not permit marriages with non-members.

Discovery of Antiseptic Treatment of Wounds

After six years he got a professorship of surgery at the University of 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 seen as science fiction. 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. 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 third.

Carbolic acid (phenol) had been in use as a means of deodorizing 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 16 March 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. Although it should be noted that he first persuaded Robert Goodyear to manufacture rubber gloves for his nurse since the carbolic acid caused her to suffer from contact dermatitis. Instruments were also washed in the same solution and assistants sprayed the solution in the operating theatre. One of his conclusions was to stop using natural porous materials in manufacturing the handles of medical instruments.

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 the University of Edinburgh, 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.

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 antisepsis. Also named in his honour is the bacterial genus Listeria, typified by the food-borne pathogen Listeria monocytogenes.

He credited Ignaz Semmelweis for earlier work in antiseptic treatment: "Without Semmelweis, my achievements would be nothing." [1]

Achievements in Surgical Technique

Lister moved from Scotland to King's College Hospital, in London, and became the second man in England to operate on a brain tumor. 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.

In life Lister was said to be a shy, unassuming man, and deeply religious in his beliefs. Lister was uninterested in social success or financial gain.

Later Life

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".

Lister was president of the Royal Society between 1895 and 1900.

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.

Lister is one of two surgeons in the United Kingdom who have the honour of having a public monument in London [citation needed]: Lister's stands in Portland Place (the other surgeon is John Hunter). There is a statue of Lister in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow, celebrating his links with the city.

Selected Biographies

  • Joseph, Baron Lister, Centenary Volume. 1827-1927, by A. Logan Turner. Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1927
  • Joseph Lister – Father of Modern Surgery, by Rhoda Truax. Bobbs Merrill, Indianapolis and New York, 1944
  • Joseph Lister (the friend of man), by Hector Charles Cameron. W. Heinemann, 1948
  • Joseph Lister, by Kenneth Walker. Hutchinson, London, 1956
  • Master Surgeon - A Biography of Joseph Lister, by Laurence Farmer, M.D. Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1962
  • Joseph Lister, 1827 - 1912, by Richard B Fisher. Stein and Day, New York, 1977
  • Jospeh Lister and Antiseptics, by A J Harding Rains. Wayland, East Sussex, 1978 (2nd impression).
  • The Collected Papers of Joseph Lister (Vols 1 and 2) by Joseph Lister. Classics of Medicine Library, Birmingham, 1979 (a facsimile edition of the Collected Papers first published in 1909).
  • Lord Lister, by Sir Rickman John Godlee. The Heirs of Hippocrates Gryphon Editions, 1993
  • Joseph Lister and the Story of Antiseptics, by John Bankston. Mitchell Lane Publishing Inc, 2004 (hardcover)
  • Joseph Lister – The Father of Antiseptics, by Peggy J. Parkes. Blackbirch Pr Inc, 2005

See also

  • Joseph Sampson Gamgee
  • Discoveries of anti-bacterial effects of penicillium moulds before Fleming


  1. ^ "Lister married Syme’s daughter Agnes and joined her as a member of the Episcopal church. He remained a faithful member of this church for the remainder of his life."

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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