Science Saturday-Dr Joseph Lister Experimental Antispetic Healer.


In our next Science Saturday story Charlie Keeble tells a tale about a medical marvel that made surgery safe. You would be surprised to know that this Essex genius was so good at hygienic practices that he has a mouthwash named in his honour.

Joseph Lister

Surgeons are known for being the most skilled doctors in the medical industry. But they were not always known for their cleanliness in their profession. Joseph Lister changed all thatwhen he showed them that a clean ward prevents death on the wards. Joseph Lister was born in Upton, now in modern day Greater London in April 1827. He comes from a family of eccentric creatives and entrepreneurs. His father Joseph Jackson Lister was a wine merchant and gentlemen scientist who invented the achromatic lenses on the compound microscope. This is a set of lenses that brings the wavelengths of light together to eliminate chromatic aberration where you get a mixed colour distortion around the object. 

Joseph Jackson introduced his son to this tool as it would become instrumental to his medical career. He was educated at a quaker school, as the Listers were a family of quakers, where he became interested in natural science and the anatomy of living things. He took his university degree at the University College London Medical School in 1844, and graduated with a BA in botany and classics three years later. Later in 1849 after recuperating from a family tragedy he started his medical science studies with a focus on histology(microscopic anatomy of biological tissue) and experimental physiology (functions and mechanisms in a living system). 

Lister began studying medicine by undertaking a clinical instruction internship for two years from 1849-52. During this time he first dressed patients in bandages where he saw how infections developed on the hospital wards. There once was an epidemic of erysipelas on a male ward that resulted in 12 infections and 4 deaths. He logged this in his notebook and draw conclusions from his observations that the human tissuehe examined under a microscope must have been infected by the presence of biological matter hanging in the air. Lister used this information in his first operation on a patient to stop her wounds from getting infected by keeping the surgical area and tools clean.  

A short time after he graduated, Doctor Joseph Lister took up a post in medicine in Edinburgh in 1853. The medical universities in Scotland at that time were the best in the world. They taught medicine and surgery as a science with some very specialised techniques to fix people, and attracted some of the most scientifically progressive students in Britain. It was also a place that had more freedom in experimental medical science that the English medical schools didn’t allow. This allowed Lister to experiment with his techniques in a laboratory as well as in clinical practice.

Lister ward of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary where Lister taught surgery

Before Joseph Lister became known in medical science, surgery was a very unhygienic practice in hospitals in a minordirty working environment. Many people believed that the infections in wounds in the hospitals were caused by exposure to “bad air” or miasma. The doctors had no facilities to wash their hands before an operation, as it was not considered necessary. In fact many surgeons would wear their bloody and unwashed medical clothes as a badge of honour to display the experience in their work. To them it was showing off how many lives they had treated. 

Later in 1860 Joseph Lister transferred to Glasgow Universitywhere he became Regius Professor of Surgery. Here he taught surgery and medicine to the city’s students operating at The Royal Infirmary in the most squalid and cramped conditions.What he saw here became a problem to be solved by his science that required a big public health programme to fix it.Five years later in 1865 Lister was introduced to the work of Louis Pasteur, the famed French microbiologist. 

Pasteur had been doing the same type of experimental medical science that Lister was doing. Pasteur was famous for inventing the method of lightly heating milk to eliminate pathogens (germs) that spoiled the drink and in doing so increase it’s shelf life, a technique known as pasteurisation named in his honour. Now Pasteur realised this method after he discovered that microscopic particles in the air could be cultivated and induced into a sterilized liquid that would contaminate it, as the bacteria multiplied in the liquid. Upon reading this Lister realised that this could be applied toantiseptic methods in surgery. 

Joseph Lister began experimenting with chemicals that could make the surgical wards sterile. He started by using carbolic acid in a solution and sprayed it on a patient’s wounds to stop the bacteria from thriving. He tried this on one patient in August 1865, who was a small boy with a compound fracture. The boy was treated and fixed up by Lister and after six weeks the bones had fused back together without any traces of gangrene or suppuration.

Lister’s carbolic spray from 1867. On display in the Science Museum London.

After realising this Lister began promoting a culture of hygiene in surgery practices. He wrote about it for medical journals and instructed all his staff to stop wearing their blood stained clothes. From now on all surgeons were to clean their hands and change their gloves before and after an operation, and they were instructed to keep their surgical wards constantly sprayed with carbolic acid to eliminate any traces of bacteria in the air. Instruments were to be treated with the same solution and cleaned after every operation to make them sterile. Later he encouraged the development of all steel surgical tools so that they could not be rusted or susceptible to clinging onto spores that can carry bacterium. 

Lister’s surgical techniques in antisepsis was revolutionary and soon almost every hospital and surgeon in the country adopted his techniques. He went to became a famous scientist in the medical world ranking alongside Louis Pasteur. Together they both promoted, although not closely, the idea of germ theory. This explains how and why germs spread and the techniques needed to eliminate them. From then on Lister’s antiseptic surgery operation techniques became a keysanitising feature of hospital wards. Something that is still practiced to this day, even though the technology and materials has advanced that is superior to the tools and materials that Lister had in the 19th century. 

In 1869 Lister left Glasgow University and went back to Edinburgh to carry on as Professor of Surgery. He continued to refine and promote antiseptic surgery by exploring other chemicals that could be used to treat the sick and injured. He wrote actively for the British Medical Journal and the Lancet about his new discoveries and techniques. 

He later moved back down to London in 1877 where he became elected to the Chair of Clinical Surgery at King’s College London. He carried on in the role until he retired in 1895 and continued to earn awards and honours for all his ground breaking achievements in medicine. In fact he is recognised the world over as the father of modern surgery. He was made a Baron by Queen Victoria in 1897 and became a member of the Privy Council at Buckingham Palace in 1902. There is even a brand of American mouthwash named in his honour called Listerine! 

Baron Joseph Lister has a legacy that we should be proud of to have as one of Essex’s great scientists. Because of him sanitation makes for a safe and effective operation to treat people and save their lives. He has advanced cleanliness ideasin ways that make us safe from germs so that we are not consumed by microscopic bugs.

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