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Lister, Joseph

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Joseph Lister
(April 5, 1827 - Febrauary 10, 1912)
Born in England
Year of Discovery: 1867

"Wash Your Hands" Turned into Major Surgical Advance

Surgery today is considered a lifesaving procedure. In the mid-1800s surgery was a horrendously painful procedure that resulted in death as often as it did life. When Joseph Lister began his medical and surgical career, anesthetics were just beginning to be developed. This, of course, made the surgery a horrible experience for the patient. Of even greater significance was the lack of sterile surgical techniques. The concept that infections were caused by identifiable organisms (germ theory) was not yet known. So, when Lister began to sterilize his surgical instruments and dressings, his colleagues viewed him with great skepticism. But, Lister was convinced of his theories and he persisted. His experiments proved him to be right and, thanks to the "Father of Modern Surgery," sterile surgical procedures became the standard practice we enjoy today.

Surgery in Lister's time was a risky business. The term "Hospitalism" was coined to describe the collection of life threatening infections that often occurred following surgery. Though 50 percent of all surgical patients died, both surgeons and society accepted this as being an unpleasant, but unavoidable, side effect. It's hard to imagine the conditions that existed, given today's strict adherence to sterile surgeries. Surgeons actually felt a sense of pride in wearing blood-covered surgical garments, seeing them as a status symbol. The never even considered washing their hands between surgeries, or before examining the next patient. They felt this way because they believed the transmission of disease was, literally, out of their hands. There were two prevailing theories of disease the surgeons clung to, neither of which pointed to them having any involvement in the spread of infections. The first was "miasma," the belief that disease was carried about by noxious gases floating in the air. Their second theory was that the infections in the patient's wounds occurred spontaneously, being generated by some unknown, and unavoidable, action within the flesh itself. Both theories meant the surgeons had no responsibility in causing their patient's infections - and the death tolls continued to rise.

Lister had other ideas. He was appointed director of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary's new surgical building in 1861. The building had been erected in hopes of reducing the widespread surgical deaths at the existing facility. But, the deaths continued, with a mortality rate of close to 50 percent during Lister's first four years. Then Lister observed a phenomenon that captured his attention. Patients with simple fractures (those not piercing the skin) survived, but patients with compound fractures (those in which the bone pierces the skin) often died. He wanted to know why, and he began to formulate a theory. He hypothesized that the infections were not spontaneous, but were caused by an outside agent. So, Lister began to wear clean surgical garments and to wash his hands before surgery. Then, after being given a research paper by Louis Pasteur, Lister had his breakthrough. Pasteur had shown that faulty fermentation of wine, which resulted in undrinkable sour wine, was caused by outside germs entering the wine. Lister made the immediate connection to his own quest. He knew if infections arose spontaneously from the wounds there was nothing that could be done to cure them. But, if they developed because of a germ entering from the outside of the wound, there was hope - they could be prevented. Lister had heard that carbolic acid (phenol) was being used to safely kill parasites found in sewage. So, he began using a formulation of diluted carbolic acid to wash his surgical instruments, his hands, and wound dressings. He also instructed his surgeons to spray the air in the operating rooms with the carbolic acid mixture, to eliminate airborne germs. His techniques were remarkably successful. He announced his success at a meeting of the British Medical Association in 1867: his surgical wards had been free of sepsis (an infection spreading throughout the body) for a miraculous nine months. This was unheard of in surgical wards, where death tolls continue to soar. Still, his breakthrough didn't lead to immediate acceptance. It would take well over a decade before his sterile techniques were widely adopted. Germany led the way, in the 1870s, employing Lister's techniques during the Franco-Prussian war. But it was Lister himself, after successfully demonstrating his antiseptic surgical technique in London, which finally turned the tide. The news of the surgery caused intense interest, especially among Lister's critics. When the patient survived, without developing an infection, his critics could resist no longer. Lister's antiseptic surgical techniques became common practice worldwide.

Lister seems to have come by his medical insight and genius quite naturally. His father, Joseph Jackson Lister, was a successful wine merchant and also an amateur scientist. With a dedication that would later be recognized in his son, he observed that their microscopes were not precise enough to study very small objects. So, he set out to correct the lenses, developing a more precise instrument, capable of studying the cellular structure of plants and animals. This discovery earned him a place as a Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain's renowned society of scientists - an honor he would later share with his son, Joseph.


Introduction by Tim Anderson


Table of Contents

Links to More Information About the Scientist
Key Insight
Key Experiment or Research
Quotes by the Scientist
Quotes About the Scientist
Similar Scientists
Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Personal Information
Key Contributing Scientists
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
Books About the Scientist
Major Academic Papers
Curriculum Vitae
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject


Links to More About the Scientist & the Science

University of Dayton biography:

web.ukonline overview of Lister's work: article on Lister:

Wikipedia entry:,_1st_Baron_Lister

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Key Insight

Key Experiments or Research

Quotes by the Scientist

Quotes About the Scientist



Similar Scientists

Explore these other scientists who have something significant in common with this science hero.
Science Heroes of the 19th Century

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Robert Koch

Koch was an ingenious innovator

Isolated the bacterium that causes tuberculosis

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Paul Ehrlich

Developed the commercial serum therapy against diphtheria

Ehrlich established exacting standards for measuring the content of antitoxins. This critical process allowed for the mass production of standardized serums against diphtheria and tetanus.

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Edward Jenner

Did earliest work on the smallpox vaccine

Jenner's early efforts proved that cowpox virus (vaccinia) could provide immunity to the smallpox virus. This discovery gave birth to the concept of vaccination.

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Joseph Lister

Lister ushered in the era of sterile surgical practices

Lister, the "Father of Modern Surgery," developed the antiseptic surgical technique, ushering in the era of sterile surgical practices.

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Louis Pasteur

Pasteur was responsible for several major scientific discoveries

Pasteur was a multi-faceted scientific genius who proved germ theory, and was the founder of vaccination, microbiology, and pasteurization.

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John Snow

developed the first method of mapping the spread of epidemics

Snow, widely known as the "Father of Epidemiology," developed the first method of mapping the spread of epidemics. He also was the first to calculate precise doses of anesthesia.

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Fun Trivia About the Science

The Science Behind the Discovery

Personal Information

Key Contributing Scientists to the Discovery

Scientific Discovery Timeline

Recommended Books About the Science

Books by the Scientist

Books About the Scientist

Dormandy, Thomas. Moments of Truth: Four Creators of Modern Medicine. Wiley, 2003.

Bankston, John. Joseph Lister and the Story of Antiseptics (Uncharted, Unexplored, and Unexplained). (YA) Mitchell Lane Publishers, 2004. 

Lister, Joseph and Wright, Thomas (Editor). The Autobiography Of Joseph Lister, Of Bradford In Yorkshire (1842). Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2009. 

Farmer, Laurence. Master surgeon: A biography of Joseph Lister. Harper, 1962. 

Noble, Iris. The Courage of Dr. Lister. Messner, 1960. 

Rickman John, Godlee. Lord Lister. Macmillan and Co., 1917.

Blore, George. Victorian Worthies: Sixteen Biographies (1920) (Lister, 26 pg chap) Cornell University Library, 2009.


Major Academic Papers Written by the Scientist

Curriculum Vitae

Links to Information on the Science