Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister
   Joseph Lister (1827-1912) was a British surgeon who discovered how to use antiseptics to kill harmful germs. Before Lister experimented with carbolic acid and learned to sterilize with it, many people died from simple wounds or surgery. He showed doctors the need to fight germs.

   Born at Upton, in Essex, Lister was the son of a wine merchant who studied optics in his spare time and whose work on the achromatic lens (the lens that refracts light without breaking it into its constituent colors) and the compound microscope opened the door to a fellowship in the Royal Society. Like his father, young Lister loved science.

   Lister was a brilliant medical student and at the age of twenty-five was a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. Studying under Professor William Sharpey and Dr. James Syme, two of the leading surgeons of all Europe, Joseph Lister distinguished himself both professionally and personally. Eventually, however, he was to surpass his famous teachers.

   When Lister was twenty-nine, he married Agnes Syme, oldest daughter of Dr. Syme. During the almost forty years of their marriage she was by his side constantly, helping as secretary, research assistant, attendant, and wife.

   It is difficult to fully appreciate the gift Joseph Lister gave to the world. When he first studied surgery, far more patients died than lived. Although surgeons were skillful in performing operations, a few days later infections would set in and the wounds would begin to putrefy. Dr. Lister began to suspect that this putrefaction was carried into the wounds by the air. Then one of his friends called his attention to the work on fermentation done by Louis Pasteur, who had shown that fermentation of wine was caused by bacteria from the air. This was the answer, Lister reasoned, but how could the germs be destroyed?

   Soon he learned that a chemist named Calvert had used carbolic acid to disinfect sewage, and he wondered if it might not serve the purpose of the surgeon. After considerable research, Lister discovered that he could use a diluted solution and it would not harm body tissues. In addition, it would effectively sterilize surgical instruments. He had to subject his theory to tests, and he was highly gratified to discover that of the eleven patients on whom he had used an­tiseptics, only one had died.