He was a visionary, a genius, a hero. But he was also a laughing stock, a pariah, a rebel. He was Joseph Lister, the father of antiseptic surgery, who changed the face of medicine forever.
A Quaker boy with a passion for science
Lister was born in 1827 in Essex, England, to a Quaker family. His father was a wine merchant and an amateur scientist who taught him how to use a microscope. Lister became fascinated by anatomy and decided to pursue a surgical career.
He studied medicine at University College London and became a house surgeon at University College Hospital. In 1853, he visited Edinburgh and met James Syme, the greatest surgical teacher of his day. He became his assistant and married his eldest daughter.
A deadly challenge
At that time, surgery was a risky and often deadly business. Patients often died from infections after operations, caused by bacteria that entered the wounds. No one knew how to prevent these infections, and many doctors believed they were caused by bad air or vapors.
Lister was not convinced by this theory. He had read about the work of Louis Pasteur, who had shown that microbes were responsible for fermentation and decay. He wondered if the same microbes could cause infections in wounds.
He started experimenting with infected tissue and discovered that bacteria were indeed the culprits. He also learned that carbolic acid, a chemical used to disinfect sewage, could kill bacteria. He decided to try using it in surgery.
A revolutionary idea
He sprayed carbolic acid on wounds, bandages and surgical instruments. He also used it to sterilise catgut, a material used for stitching wounds. He found that his patients recovered faster and had fewer complications than before.
He published his results in 1867 in a paper titled ‘On the Antiseptic Principle in the Practice of Surgery’. He claimed that antiseptics could prevent infection and make surgery safer.
However, his idea was met with scepticism and hostility by many doctors. They thought he was crazy or deluded. They argued that his method was too complicated, too expensive or too smelly. They also feared that carbolic acid could harm the patients or themselves.
Some doctors even mocked him by wearing carbolic acid as perfume or drinking it as a joke. One surgeon said: ‘I would rather have the fever than be soaked in this stuff.’
A stubborn crusader
But Lister did not give up. He continued to improve his method and to demonstrate its benefits. He travelled around Europe and America to spread his message. He also trained many students and followers who adopted his system.
Gradually, his idea gained acceptance and recognition. He was honoured with many awards and titles, including a baronetcy and a peerage. He became known as the founder of antiseptic medicine and a pioneer of preventive medicine.
His principle – that bacteria must never gain entry into an operation wound – remains the basis of surgery to this day. His system paved the way for more complex and lifesaving operations, such as organ transplants and joint replacements.
A legend in his own time
He died in 1912 at the age of 84, after devoting his life to developing and promoting safe surgery. He is remembered as one of the greatest surgeons and medical scientists of all time.