Happy Birthday — Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister, c. 1890.
From Six Great Scientists, by Margaret Avery, 1923

Perhaps it’s appropriate at this time to note that April 5 was the birthday of Joseph Lister, considered the father of antiseptic medicine. Lister was born in 1827 in Upton, England. He graduated with honors from University College in London in 1852 and became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and house surgeon at University College Hospital. In October 1856, Lister was appointed surgeon to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. 

During that period, conventional wisdom was that infections were caused by miasma, or bad air. About half of surgery patients died of infection, leading to the expression, “The operation was successful, but the patient died.”

Lister suspected the infections were caused by pollen-like dust and he began experimenting with carbolic acid as an antiseptic. Although his ideas weren’t completely accurate, he was on to something; surgical mortality fell from 45 to 15 percent in his Male Accident Ward between 1865 and 1869.

Of course, such a radical change to the wisdom of the time wasn’t immediately appreciated. But eventually Lister was able to see almost universal acceptance of his ideas in his lifetime.

Not all pioneers are so fortunate.

For more on Joseph Lister, visit https://www.britannica.com/biography/Joseph-Lister-Baron-Lister-of-Lyme-Regis. The photo came from that site.

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