Joseph Lister
(Father of Infection-Free Surgery)


by Mol Smith


I suspect few people have actually heard of Joseph Lister unless they have had formal medical training. I never heard of him until I read the book: "The Butchering Art" available from Amazon UK here and Amazon USA here.

Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister, OM PC PRS FRS (5 April 1827 – 10 February 1912[1]), known between 1883 and 1897 as Sir Joseph Lister, Bt., was a British surgeon and a pioneer of antiseptic surgery.

He promoted the idea of sterile surgery while working at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Lister successfully introduced carbolic acid (now known as phenol) to sterilise surgical instruments and to clean wounds.

One of the main reason's this chap might interest the microscopy community is his extensive use of a microscope. One must remember this is the time when germs (bacteria) although discovered and observed through a microscope, the germ theory of cause of disease  and infection was still only a theory.

Applying Louis Pasteur's advances in microbiology, Lister championed the use of carbolic acid as an antiseptic, so that it became the first widely used antiseptic in surgery. He first suspected it would prove an adequate disinfectant because it was used to ease the stench from fields irrigated with sewage waste. He presumed it was safe because fields treated with carbolic acid produced no apparent ill-effects on the livestock that later grazed upon them.

Lister's work led to a reduction in post-operative infections and made surgery safer for patients, distinguishing him as the "father of modern surgery". The widespread introduction of antiseptic surgical methods followed the publishing of Lister's Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery in 1867

Lister came from a prosperous Quaker home in West Ham, Essex, England, a son of wine merchant Joseph Jackson Lister, who was also a pioneer of achromatic object lenses for the compound microscope.
Lister's work in turn inspired St. Louis-based doctor Joseph Lawrence to develop an alcohol-based formula for a surgical antiseptic which included eucalyptol, menthol, methyl salicylate, and thymol (Its exact composition is a commercial secret). Lawrence named his antiseptic "Listerine" in honor of Lister.

(Note: Thymol is a natural ingrdient of Tyme).

Before Lister's studies of surgery, most people believed that chemical damage from exposure to bad air was responsible for infections in wounds. Hospital wards were occasionally aired out at midday as a precaution against the spread of infection via miasma, but facilities for washing hands or a patient's wounds were not available. A surgeon was not required to wash his hands before seeing a patient because such practices were not considered necessary to avoid infection. Despite the work of Ignaz Semmelweis and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., hospitals practised surgery under unsanitary conditions. Surgeons of the time referred to the "good old surgical stink" and took pride in the stains on their unwashed operating gowns as a display of their experience.[10]

In 1834, Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge discovered phenol, also known as carbolic acid, which he derived in an impure form from coal tar. At that time, there was uncertainty between the substance of creosote – a chemical that had been used to treat wood used for railway ties and ships since it protected the wood from rotting – and carbolic acid. Upon hearing that creosote had been used for treating sewage, Lister began to test the efficacy of carbolic acid when applied directly to wounds.

Therefore, Lister tested the results of spraying instruments, the surgical incisions, and dressings with a solution of carbolic acid. Lister found that the solution swabbed on wounds remarkably reduced the incidence of gangrene. In August 1865, Lister applied a piece of lint dipped in carbolic acid solution onto the wound of a seven-year-old boy at Glasgow Infirmary, who had sustained a compound fracture after a cart wheel had passed over his leg. After four days, he renewed the pad and discovered that no infection had developed, and after a total of six weeks he was amazed to discover that the boy's bones had fused back together, without the danger of suppuration. He subsequently published his results in The Lancet in a series of six articles, running from March through July 1867.

He instructed surgeons under his responsibility to wear clean gloves and wash their hands before and after operations with 5% carbolic acid solutions. Instruments were also washed in the same solution and assistants sprayed the solution in the operating theatre. One of his additional suggestions was to stop using porous natural materials in manufacturing the handles of medical instruments.

The book which details Lister's work and captures the atmosphere and mood of the gruesome operating threatres of the early victorian era is a brilliany and riveting read. I strongly recommend it.

Interesting archive online about Lister.

A fantastic read about Lister's work
Highly recommended!

Mouthwash inspired by Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister 1855

Lister spraying carbolic acid

Lister operating
  Mol Smith