Joseph Lister

Home » History Greatest People » Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister was born in Upton, Essex, England, on April 5, 1827, the fourth of Joseph Jackson Lister and Isabella Harris Lister’s seven children.

His father was a wealthy wine merchant and student of Latin and mathematics who also developed an achromatic lens for the microscope. As a child Lister studied fish and small animals.

He also did microscopic research, and his later acceptance of Louis Pasteur’s (1822–1895) work may be related to his understanding of the process of fermentation (the chemical breakdown of a compound) in relation to the making of wine.

With the introduction of anesthesia (something that causes a patient to lose sensation in a certain area of the body or the entire body) in the 1840s, operations had become more common.

Except, many patients died from infection following surgery. Inflammation (swelling) and suppuration (pus formation) occurred in almost all accidental wounds after surgery, and more so when patients were treated at the hospital rather than at home by a visiting surgeon.

The reason was unknown, but it was believed to be something in the air.

As a result wounds were heavily dressed or washed with water to keep the air out; operations were a last resort. The head, chest, and stomach were almost never opened, and injured limbs were usually amputated (cut off).

Lister’s research centered on the microscopic changes in tissue that result in inflammation. When he read Pasteur’s work on germs in 1864, Lister immediately applied Pasteur’s thinking to the problem he was investigating. He concluded that inflammation was the result of germs entering and developing in the wound.

Since Pasteur’s solution of killing germs with heat could not be applied to the living body, Lister decided to try a chemical to destroy the germs.

While he was a surgeon at Edinburgh Hospital, he observed that several patients, who had undergone surgery, had died from unattended infections.

A high death rate due to surgical infection was prominent all over Europe and disturbed him greatly.

During those times, many surgeons were trained to believe that infections arose from within the wounds itself.

They never washed their hands or changed their blood-stained clothes as this was considered a status symbol and the mark of a true surgeon.

Lister did not accept this.

He conducted numerous researches and spent many years researching on how dangerous infections could be stopped.

He followed strictly sterile procedures by washing his hands after every surgery and wearing clean clothes.

This approach, although scoffed at by many, led to lesser death rates from infections among patients at various hospitals.

Joseph Lister married James Syme’s eldest daughter, Agnes Syme.

They were childless, but his wife supported him throughout Lister’s professional career.

After his wife died in 1892, Lister turned towards religion and regularly attended the ‘Scottish Episcopal Church’.

On February 10, 1912, Lister died at Walmer, Kent, England.

After a long career in medicine, he retired in 1893.

His principles in antiseptic surgery became universally accepted and it led to the development of various other researches.

His antiseptic techniques laid the foundation for modern surgery.

The ‘Listerine’ mouthwash was named after him, in his honor, in 1879.