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Joseph Lister: Saving Lives with Practical Cleanliness

5 min

Most people are familiar with the mouthwash product Listerine. But few are familiar with the man from which the oral antiseptic product derives its name. That man is British surgeon Joseph Lister, the “father of modern surgery.” Dr. Lister was a committed Christian who applied the Bible to all of life. God’s call to His people to be “set apart” from uncleanness was applied by Dr. Joseph Lister in many practical ways. The revolutionary surgical procedures of sterilization that he developed have saved thousands of lives over the years.

Joseph Lister was born on the outskirts of London on April 5, 1827, into a prominent Quaker family. Lister’s father was a respected scientist in his own right who had made great advances in the design and use of the compound microscope. His reputation was such that he was welcomed into the Royal Society.

Joseph Lister had a severe problem with stuttering as a boy, and few would have imagined that he would ever become a master in the field of medicine and science like his father. He was “homeschooled” until the age of eleven, and everyone knew him to be a kindhearted boy.

When Lister showed an early interest in medicine in general, and in surgery in particular, his father feared that the tenderhearted boy could not ever succeed as a surgeon. In those days of scientific ignorance, surgery was a fearful, bloody, and painful ordeal. Infection post-surgery was very common, and the source of infection was still a mystery.

The old theory of the origin of sicknesses was known as the miasma theory. This theory held that sicknesses arose from “bad air,” or miasma, which was the Greek word for “pollution.” As early as the ancient Greeks, thoughtful men had noticed that illnesses could be spread from person to person. But it was a great mystery as to how these diseases were transferred.

In the 1670s, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, known as the “Father of Microbiology,” was the first man to witness animalcules— “little animals” — that lived in water and could be seen with his microscope. While the word bacteria was not in use at the time, that is exactly what the Dutch scientist was observing!

Various physicians through the years began arguing that it was these microscopic organisms that caused much sickness and infection. But in Lister’s youth, such theories were still misunderstood and viewed with skepticism by traditional medical schools that held to the miasma theory.

Joseph Lister attended one of the few medical schools in England that were open to Quakers at the time. During his university days, he used a beautiful microscope that was a gift from his father. The merciful Joseph Lister was delighted with the new invention of ether that allowed operations to be performed under the benefit of anesthesia. Although anesthesia lessened the trauma of surgery itself, patients still dreaded going under the knife of the surgeon, fearing the effects of the infections following surgeries that were so common before Lister’s time.

Lister graduated with his medical degree and began practicing medicine in 1850. Many exciting, new discoveries and advances in medicine piqued his interest. In 1838, a French doctor named Beauperthuy had suggested that the small organisms seen by Leeuwenhoek were the source of infectious diseases. Then, in 1847, Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that an alarming number of women had developed high fevers and died when they were treated by doctors who came directly from performing autopsies in the morgue! By following the practice of midwives, Semmelweis urged his staff to wash their hands with soap and water before delivering a baby. The result was the instances of death from “childbed fever” were dramatically reduced. Louis Pasteur, another contemporary of Lister’s, was experimenting with putting solutions of boric acid into the birth canal after childbirth, which also proved to dramatically reduce postpartum infections. Every new year brought increasing evidence that the germ theory of disease was correct.

As a young doctor, Lister grieved to see many of his patients die, even of minor conditions. One young bridegroom who asked to have a mole removed to please his bride developed an infection quickly after the minor surgical procedure. Soon after, the young bridegroom was dead! Lister was astonished to find that fully one-half of all surgery patients developed an infection during the recovery period and, as a result, died.

In 1856, Joseph Lister fell in love with a young lady named Agnes Syme. Agnes was not a Quaker, and Joseph feared that the marriage would cause a family rupture. His father, however, gave Joseph his blessing. Joseph Lister left the Society of Friends and became a Protestant church member in Edinburgh, where he was practicing medicine at the time.

Agnes became a faithful wife to her husband and served for the rest of her life as his private secretary. She took dictation from her husband as he talked, and her careful handwritten notes filled page after page of notebooks that would one day save many lives.

Dr. Lister noticed that patients who had simple broken bones recovered quickly without fever. On the other hand, patients who suffered compound fractures (where the broken bones protrude through the flesh) tended to develop fever and infection, and often many of them died. After conversations with a chemist, Dr. Lister began treating compound fractures with a solution of carbolic acid. The results were astonishing! Wounds healed wonderfully, with no infection and no fever.

In a time when many doctors walked around from patient to patient with blood-encrusted aprons and unwashed hands, Dr. Lister adopted a different practice. He would always wear a clean linen apron. He was the first “white-coat” doctor in history! Lister took his findings further. The doctor soaked in carbolic acid the strings used to sew up wounds and found that the sutures held with no infection. He began washing bandages and cleaning instruments used in surgery. His procedure became known as antiseptic surgery.

The results quickly were announced throughout Europe. In one particular hospital in Munich, Germany, there was a horrid death rate of four deaths per every five surgeries. After antiseptic practices were implemented, the death rate dropped to one death per every 200 surgeries!

Dr. Joseph Lister was a humble, gracious Christian. He took interest in every patient. Once, he carefully sewed up a baby doll for a little girl in the hospital who implored him to repair her doll’s torn leg. Both the doll and the little girl recovered!

By the time of his death in 1912 at the age of 84, the antiseptic procedures advocated by Dr. Joseph Lister were being practiced throughout Western Europe and North America. Many unnecessary deaths were averted and lives of patients spared by careful attention to cleanliness. Grateful leaders showered honors upon him. Lister was appointed the personal physician of Queen Victoria. He was knighted by the King of Denmark. He was honored by all his scientific peers by being elected as the president of the Royal Society. But his greatest reward of a life well-lived was the countless lives his discoveries had saved.

Sources and Further Reference:

Tiner, John Hudson. Exploring the History of Medicine. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1999.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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