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Lord Joseph Lister

Lord Joseph Lister / Medical Pioneers

  • Name  : Lister
  • Born  : 1827
  • Died  : 1912
  • Category  : Medical Pioneers
  • Finest Moment : Demonstration of the benefits of antiseptic methods in surgery

English by birth (Lyme Regis, Essex, 5 April 1827), Lister married a Scot, spent most of his professional life in Scotland, and carried out almost all of his medical research in Scottish hospitals. His father was an amateur scientist, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society for work which led to the modern achromatic microscope.

His parents were Quakers, and sent him to Quaker institutions which emphasised teaching in natural history and other sciences. Before he was 16 he decided on a surgical career. He qualified as a doctor at University College, London, in 1852. The following year he arrived in Edinburgh, to gain experience under Professor James Syme. Fate played its hand here, when a young surgeon was killed in the Crimea in 1854, leaving medical vacancies in Edinburgh. Lister obtained both, and also married Syme's daughter in 1856. They had a happy and childless marriage.

In 1860 he became Regius Professor of Surgery at Glasgow University, and a year later surgeon at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow. Lister was in charge of the new surgical block, where, despite the best of care during and after surgery, a horrifying 45-50% of surgical patients died from sepsis following amputations. This was between 1861 and 1865.

Lister theorised that infected wounds were caused by a pollen-like dust, too small to be seen with the naked eye. Accordingly, he attempted to protect the operation site by setting up a barrier between the surgeon's hands and instruments. He began by using carbolic acid, by soaking lint or calico and applying it to the wound.

At some point Lister must have become aware of the experiments being done by Louis Pasteur in France; when Pasteur showed that the fermentation of wine, for example, was cause by minute living organisms in the air. In fact, most of the organisms were to be found on the surgeon's hands and instruments, as well as any other material coming into contact with an open wound. The silk use for stitching then did not absorb much carbolic acid, so that Lister switched to using catgut which did. Between 1865 and 1869, surgical mortality in Lister's Male Accident Ward fell from 45% to 15%.

Lister succeeded Syme in the chair of Clinical Surgery at Edinburgh University in 1869, to stay for seven years. He toured Germany to great acclaim, and America to less, though Boston and New York appreciated his findings. He made his final move in 1877, when he became Professor of Surgery at King's College Hospital, London.

His wife died in 1892, and Lister retired the following year. He died on 10 February 1912, at Walmer, Kent.

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