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Joseph Lister (1827-1912)

Joseph Lister is the surgeon who introduced new principles of cleanliness which transformed surgical practice in the late 1800s. We take it for granted that a surgeon will guard a patient's safety by using aseptic methods. But this was not always the case, and until Lister introduced sterile surgery, a patient could undergo a procedure successfully only to die from a postoperative infection known as ‘ward fever’.

Born in Essex, Lister was interested in surgery from an early stage - he was present at the first surgical procedure carried out under anaesthetic in 1846. Lister continued his studies in London and passed his examinations, becoming a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1852. He was recommended to visit Professor of Clinical Surgery James Syme (1799-1870) in Edinburgh and became his dresser, then house surgeon and then his son-in-law.

Lister moved to Glasgow in 1860 and became a Professor of Surgery. He read Pasteur's work on micro-organisms and decided to experiment with using one of Pasteur's proposed techniques, that of exposing the wound to chemicals. He chose dressings soaked with carbolic acid (phenol) to cover the wound and the rate of infection was vastly reduced. Lister then experimented with hand-washing, sterilising instruments and spraying carbolic in the theatre while operating, in order to limit infection. His lowered infection rate was very good and Listerian principles were adopted throughout many countries by a number of surgeons. Lister is now known as the ‘father of antiseptic surgery’.

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Related links

Techniques and Technologies:


W F Bynum and H Bynum, Dictionary of Medical Biography (London: Greenwood Press, 2007)

R B. Fisher, Joseph Lister 1827-1912 (London: MacDonald and Jane, 1977)


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