About Joseph Lister (1827 - 1912)

Joseph Lister was born on 5 April 1827. As a child he did well at school, especially in his studies of German and French, which stood him well in later life as these were the main languages used in medical research. He went on to study at the University of London, and he graduated with an honours degree in medicine at the age of 25.

He became the assistant of a surgeon, James Syme, at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He married Syme's daughter, Anne, who later assisted him in his work. Six years later he became a professor of surgery at the University of Glasgow.

In those days, medical staff did not wash their hands, and wounds commonly became infected, and the patient's flesh rotted. This condition is know as gangrene (say gan-green). Many patients died as a result of these terrible infections.

Lister read a paper written by Louis Pasteur that claimed rotting and infection could not happen without micro-organisms. To get rid of them, Pasteur suggested filtering, heating or the use of chemicals. The first were not possible with wounds, so Lister started experimenting with chemicals.

Joseph Lister invented the first antiseptic. © Getty Images

Joseph Lister invented the first antiseptic. © Getty Images

He tested carbolic acid, or phenol, which was used to remove the smell from sewage. He sprayed it on surgical instruments, wounds and dressings, and found a big reduction of gangrene and infections. Wounds no longer became septic, so the carbolic acid was anti-septic.

He also made surgeons wear gloves and wash their hands before and after operations with carbolic acid diluted in water.

Surgeons follow Lister's teaching. They scrub up using antiseptics and wear gloves before starting to operate. © Getty Images

Surgeons follow Lister's teaching. They scrub up using antiseptics and wear gloves before starting to operate. © Getty Images

In 1869, Lister returned to the University of Edinburgh as Professor of Surgery. He continued to develop the use of antiseptics, and many people attended his lectures as his fame spread. The germ theory of disease became more widely accepted and it was accepted that it was better to prevent the bacteria getting into wounds than to have to cure the infections they caused afterwards. Gradually, surgery became more sterile.
Lister went back to London to King's College Hospital, where he became only the second surgeon in England to do brain surgery.

King Edward VII came down with acute appendicitis two days before his coronation, and his surgeons consulted Lister before attempting what was in those days risky surgery. 

Lister died in at home in Walmer, Kent in 1912. He was 84. There is a statue of him in Glasgow as well as a monument in London.

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