Life and Legacy of Joseph Lister, Father of Modern Surgery

The surgeon who pioneered modern antiseptic procedures

Joseph Lister
Portrait of Joseph Lister.

Wellcome Collection/CC BY 4.0 

English surgeon Joseph Lister (April 5, 1827–February 10, 1912), Baron Lister of Lyme Regis, is considered the father of modern surgery for his work developing sterilization procedures that saved countless lives. Lister pioneered the use of carbolic acid for sanitizing operating rooms and employed antiseptic surgical procedures to prevent deadly postoperative infections.

Early Years

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

Lister's parents were devout Quakers, and his father was a successful wine merchant with scientific interests of his own: he invented the first achromatic microscope lens, an endeavor that earned him the honor of being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The young Lister's love for science grew as he became fascinated with the microscopic world introduced to him by his father. Lister decided at an early age that he wanted to become a surgeon and thus prepared for this eventual career by delving into science and mathematics subjects at the Quaker schools he attended in London. 

After entering the University of London in 1844, Lister earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1847 and a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery in 1852. Lister's achievements during this time included serving as house surgeon at the University College Hospital of the University of London and being selected as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Research and Personal Life

In 1854, Lister went to the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in Scotland to study under the famous surgeon James Syme. Under Syme, Lister's professional and personal life flourished: he met and married Syme's daughter, Agnes, in 1856. Agnes was invaluable as a wife and partner, assisting Joseph with his medical research and laboratory experiments.

Joseph Lister's research was centered on inflammation and its impact on wound healing. He published a number of papers regarding muscle activity in the skin and eyes, coagulation of blood, and blood vessel engorgement during inflammation. Lister's research led to his appointment as Regius Professor of Surgery at the University of Glasgow in 1859. In 1860, he was named a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Implementation of Antisepsis

By 1861, Lister was leading the surgical ward at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. During this time in history, surgery was performed only when absolutely necessary due to high death rates associated with infections. With little understanding of how germs like bacteria caused disease, surgical procedures were regularly performed in unsanitary conditions.

In an attempt to combat wound infections, Lister began to employ cleanliness techniques used by Florence Nightingale and others. This process involved keeping the environment clean, changing dressings, and washing hands. However, it was not until he read the works of Louis Pasteur that Lister began to link germs with surgical wounds. While Lister was not the first to suggest that microorganisms were the cause of hospital associated diseases or that infections could be reduced through antiseptic methods, he was able to marry these ideas and effectively implement treatment for wound infections.

In 1865, Lister began using carbolic acid (phenol), a substance used in sewage treatment, as an antiseptic to treat compound fracture wounds. These injuries were commonly treated by amputation, as they involved penetration of the skin and significant tissue damage. Lister used carbolic acid for hand washing and treatment of surgical incisions and dressings. He even developed an instrument for spraying carbolic acid into the air in the operating room.

Lifesaving Antiseptic Success

Lister's first success case was an eleven year old boy who had suffered injuries from a horse cart accident. Lister employed antiseptic procedures during treatment, then found that the boy's fractures and wounds healed without infection. Further success ensued as nine of eleven other cases where carbolic acid was used to treat wounds showed no signs of infection.

In 1867, three articles written by Lister were published in London's weekly medical journal, The Lancet. The articles outlined Lister's method of antiseptic treatment based on the germ theory. In August of 1867, Lister announced at the Dublin meeting of the British Medical Association that no deaths associated with blood poisoning or gangrene had occurred since antiseptic methods had been fully employed in his wards at Glasgow's Royal Infirmary.

Later Life and Honors

In 1877, Lister assumed the chair of Clinical Surgery at King's College in London and began practicing at King's College Hospital. There, he continued to research ways to improve his antiseptic methods and develop new methods for treating injuries. He popularized the use of gauze bandages for wound treatment, developed rubber drainage tubes, and created ligatures made from sterile catgut for stitching wounds. While Lister's ideas of antisepsis were not immediately accepted by many of his peers, his ideas eventually gained nearly worldwide acceptance.

For his outstanding achievements in surgery and medicine, Joseph Lister was ennobled a Baronet by Queen Victoria in 1883 and received the title Sir Joseph Lister. In 1897, he was made Baron Lister of Lyme Regis and awarded the Order of Merit by King Edward VII in 1902.

Death and Legacy

Joseph Lister retired in 1893 following the death of his beloved wife Agnes. He later suffered a stroke, but was still able to consult on treatment for King Edward VII's appendicitis surgery in 1902.

By 1909, Lister had lost the ability to read or write. Nineteen years after the passing of his wife, Joseph Lister died on February 10, 1912 at Walmer in Kent, England. He was 84 years old.

Joseph Lister revolutionized surgical practices by applying the germ theory to surgery. His willingness to experiment with new surgical techniques led to the development of antiseptic methods that focused on keeping wounds free of pathogens. While changes have been made to Lister's antisepsis methods and materials, his antiseptic principles remain the foundation for today's medical practice of asepsis (total elimination of microbes) in surgery.

Joseph Lister Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Joseph Lister
  • Also Known As: Sir Joseph Lister, Baron Lister of Lyme Regis
  • Known For: First to implement antiseptic method in surgery; father of modern surgery
  • Born: April 5, 1827 in Essex, England
  • Parents' Names: Joseph Jackson Lister and Isabella Harris
  • Died: February 10, 1912 in Kent, England
  • Education: University of London, Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery
  • Published Works: On a New Method of Treating Compound Fracture, Abscess, etc. with Observation on the Conditions of Suppuration (1867); On the Antiseptic Principle in the Practice of Surgery (1867); and Illustrations of the Antiseptic System of Treatment in Surgery (1867)
  • Spouse Name: Agnes Syme (1856-1893)
  • Fun Fact: Listerine mouthwash and the bacterial genus Listeria were named after Lister

Sources

  • Fitzharris, Lindsey. The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine. Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
  • Gaw, Jerry L. A Time to Heal: the Diffusion of Listerism in Victorian Britain. American Philosophical Society, 1999.
  • Pitt, Dennis, and Jean-Michel Aubin. "Joseph Lister: Father of Modern Surgery." National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3468637/.
  • Simmons, John Galbraith. Doctors and Discoveries: Lives That Created Today's Medicine. Houghton Mifflin, 2002.