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Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister Photo

Joseph Lister was the fourth child of Joseph Jackson Lister and Isabella Harris Lister, born on 5th April 1827 in Upton, Essex, England. Joseph’s father was a successful wine merchant with a keen interest in mathematics and Latin. From his childhood, Lister was interested in the study of microscopic organisms and in later life, his endorsement of Louis Pasteur’s work showed his grasp on the process of fermentation in relation to making wine

From a very early age, Lister declared his ambition towards becoming a surgeon. He studied mathematics, natural sciences, and languages at schools in Hitchin and Tottenham, England. Finally, in 1844, he got admission in the University College in London, England, to study medicine and surgery. After graduating in 1852, he embarked on a successful career in surgery in Edinburgh, Scotland and in 1860; he was appointed a professor of surgery at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow, Scotland.

Making Surgery Safer

One of his initial discoveries in the field of surgery was the importance of antiseptics. He devised the antiseptic method in which a germ-killing substance was applied to wounds to help keep them sterile. For this purpose, he introduced carbolic acid to sterilize surgical tools and clean wounds. Needless to say, this was undoubtedly the beginning of modern-day surgery.

During the 1840’s, anesthesia made operations a common procedure. However, even then most patients suffered from or even died due to post-surgical complications caused by infections. Inflammation and suppuration were common occurrences in wounds after surgeries, and more so if the surgery had been conducted at hospitals rather than home.  The reason had yet to be explained but the general opinion was that it had something to do with air coming into contact with the wound.

Since Lister’s research revolved around microscopic changes in tissue which cause inflammation and his interest in Pasteur’s work on germs in 1864, he instantly started probing this issue from Pasteur’s perspective. He concluded that infection and inflammation of the wounds were the result of germs entering the open wound. What needed to be done was to keep the surrounding area and the wound itself as sterile as possible. While Pasteur had suggested the use of heat for killing germs, it could not be used for killing germs on a living body; therefore Lister started looking for a chemical solution for killing germs without harming the body.

This dilemma was solved for Lister when he read an article in the newspaper about how the spread of disease was being curtailed in people and animals by treating sewage with carbolic acid in England. By 1865, he had successfully developed a method of applying carbolic acid to wounds for disinfecting purposes. However, the practice of spraying carbolic acid in operation theaters was short-lived, since it was soon recognized that airborne germs were not the issue. Nonetheless, Lister kept pursuing his commitment towards developing effective antiseptic methods to aid successful surgeries. He developed sterile thread for closing wounds and gauze dressings. The development of antisepsis became a standard in surgery and helped in its perfection and development. Lesser and lesser amputations were required and fewer deaths after surgery was just some of the outcomes of establishing antiseptics as a standard procedure leading to surgery.

Later years

By 1869 Joseph Lister had returned to Edinburgh and was soon appointed a professor of surgery at King’s College in London, England. His life’s work won him worldwide acclaim, honors, and honorary doctorates and he was also made a Baron in 1897. After retirement in 1893, he was first appointed the foreign secretary of the Royal Society, and later its president from 1895 to 1900. He died on 10th February 1912 at Walmer, Kent, England.

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