Lister pioneers antiseptic surgery in Glasgow

Joseph Lister's medical technique was first performed on August 12th, 1865.

Cleansing spirit: Joseph Lister, 1896.
Cleansing spirit: Joseph Lister, 1896.

An 11-year-old Glaswegian named James Greenlees unintentionally helped to make history that day in 1865. Run over by a cart in the street, he was taken to the male accident ward at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, where the house surgeon was Joseph Lister, a 38-year-old Englishman who was developing a new technique to deal with the appalling death rates that killed half the surgery patients. The boy had a compound fracture of the lower left leg. He was given chloroform and Lister washed the wound out and applied a dressing of carbolic acid (now called phenol). A splint and bandages were put in place and the carbolic acid dressing was renewed again several times as the days went by and the wound began to scab over and heal. After six weeks Greenlees was discharged, fully recovered.

It was Lister’s first success with this technique. From a Quaker family, his early interest in science had been fostered by his father, an amateur physicist who was a member of the Royal Society. The son began a brilliant career at University College, London, became a surgeon and after a period at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary was appointed Regius Professor of Surgery at Glasgow University and in 1861 surgeon to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

He was influenced by the French scientist Louis Pasteur, who had suggested that patients under surgery might be fatally infected by the development of tiny organisms (or bacteria) in their blood. Pasteur was a hugely influential theorist, but Lister was a practical technician determined to put an end to unnecessary deaths. Believing he was directed by God, he succeeded and between 1865 and 1869 his ward’s death rate after surgery fell to only 15 per cent.  

It took time for Lister’s methods to gain acceptance, but the evidence was too strong to be ignored and in Britain and abroad other medical men were exploring similar techniques. In 1869 he was appointed Professor of Clinical Surgery at Edinburgh and in 1877 he returned to London, to King’s College Hospital. He retired from medical practice in 1893. Greatly honoured, he was Sir Joseph Lister from 1883, President of the Royal Society in 1895, Lord Lister from 1897 and one of the 12 original members of the Order of Merit in 1902. 

Lister was almost worshipped by those who worked with him, but he was shy and reserved and it seems that few people ever knew him well. He was blind and deaf by the time he died in 1912 at the age of 84, which his doctor considered ‘a merciful end’. He was given a magnificent funeral in Westminster Abbey.  

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