Joseph Lister (1827–1912) was an English surgeon. Educated at University College, London, he practiced and taught surgery in Scotland, first in Glasgow and then in Edinburgh, before returning to London in 1877. Lister was concerned about the frequently fatal wound infections that followed surgical operations, and, in search of solutions to this problem, he studied the work of European bacteriologists, notably that of Louis Pasteur. Lister thought that bacteria caused the postoperative infections that were so common, and although the connection between bacteria and infection had not been confirmed beyond doubt at that time, he understood that bacteria could be killed by antiseptics. He came up with the idea of using carbolic acid for this purpose and started the practice of preoperative cleansing of his and his assistants' hands with carbolic acid, as well as spraying carbolic acid liberally in the air in the operating room. The dramatic beneficial results of what amounted to an experimental trial of this regimen were reported in the Lancet in 1867. Lister's methods transformed the practice of surgery from a desperate, life-threatening gamble into a relatively safe procedure for many conditions—including the management of childbirth.
Unlike Ignaz Semmelweiss and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who preceded Lister in recognizing the importance of cleanliness in preventing infection during childbirth, Lister offered a method that did not imply that doctors were dirty, and so his message was heeded rather than rejected. Therefore he, more than Semmelweiss or Holmes, deserves much credit for making childbirth safe, as well as for the concept of antiseptic surgical operations. Lister was showered with honors, including elevation to the peerage, the first medical doctor to achieve this distinction. He was buried in Westminster Abbey with the pomp and ceremony reserved for the greatest national heroes.
JOHN M. LAST
Lister, J. (1867). "On a New Method of Treating Compound Fractures, Abscesses, Etc., with Observations on the Conditions of Suppuration." Lancet 1:326–329, 357–359, 387–389, 507–509; 2:95–96.
—— (1867). "On the Antiseptic Principle in the Practice of Surgery." Lancet 2:353–356, 668–669.