Joseph Lister Facts & Worksheets

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    • Education and early career
    • Work in antisepsis
    • Criticisms of Lister's methods
    • Later life

    Key Facts And Information

    Let’s know more about Joseph Lister!

    • Joseph Lister was a British surgeon whose significant contribution to the medical field drew on Louis Pasteur's experiments in disproving spontaneous generation. In 1867, he proposed the antiseptic method after his experiments confirmed Pasteur's conclusion that microbes cause decay. He was the first to provide a solution to the growing problem of wound infection following surgical operations during the period. His antiseptic operations made tremendous advances in surgery possible. He was regarded by many as the father of modern surgery.

    Education and early career

    • Joseph Lister was born on 5 April 1827, the second of six children, in Upton, a village near London, to Joseph Jackson Lister and Isabella Harris. His father was a prosperous Quaker merchant and amateur physicist who was made a Fellow on the Royal Society for his design of achromatic object lenses for use in compound microscopes.
    • Lister went to Benjamin Abbott's Isaac Brown Academy and Grove House School, both private Quaker schools, where he studied mathematics, natural sciences and languages.
    • His father was clearly a great influence on his education, urging him to pursue learning various languages.
    • Using his father's microscope, Lister would examine dissected small animals and fish.
    • It was also his father's interest and background in microscopy that encouraged him to become a surgeon.
    • Unable to attend either Oxford or Cambridge due to the religious tests that barred him, Lister attended the non-sectarian University College London Medical School in 1844.
    • He finished the arts course with honours in 1847.
    • He had a nervous breakdown owing to his brother's death and stress of his classes, which led to a delay in his medical studies at the university.
    • By October 1848, he eventually pursued medicine and became active in the University Debating Society and the Hospital Medical Society.
    • During his internship, he was the house physician to Walter Hayle Walshe and then house surgeon to John Eric Erichsen in 1851.
    • He graduated as Bachelor of Medicine with honours in 1852.
    • Following his graduation, he wrote several papers including 'Observations on the Contractile Tissue of the Iris' and the 'Observations on the Muscular Tissue of the Skin'.
    • Lister successfully passed the examination for fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons and on William Sharpley's advice, he became assistant to a leading surgeon, James Syme, at the University of Edinburgh.
    • He decided to settle in Edinburgh for some time until in 1856 he married Syme’s daughter, Agnes, leaving the Quakers to do so.
    • The newly-weds toured the leading medical institutes in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy for several months.
    • Agnes, who was interested in medical research, became Lister's partner in the laboratory for the rest of her life.
    • Although childless, their marriage was happy.

    Work in antisepsis

    • Lister was appointed Regius Professor at the University of Glasgow in 1860. Then he became surgeon at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in August 1861, supervising the wards in the new surgical block.
    • Hospital disease, now known as operative sepsis, was a common occurrence during this period.
    • The managers hoped that this would be greatly decreased in their new building.
    • However, the new setting did not improve the cases. In fact, Lister reported that the mortality rate of amputation cases due to sepsis was 45-50% between 1861 and 1865 in his Male Accident Ward.
    • It is important to note that practices to maintain sanitary conditions in hospitals were deemed unnecessary at the time.
    • As such, facilities for washing hands or a patient's wounds were not available and stains on unwashed operating gowns were a sign of capability and experience.
    • Lister found out that mortality following surgical operations was even higher than in Edinburgh.
    • At the time, surgery became the last resort due to surgical diseases which frequently killed the patients whilst on a hospital ward.
    • These diseases were usually blamed on miasmas (exposure to 'bad air') which presumably hovered about the hospital and caused wounds to rot.
    • As a student, Lister had examined and studied various materials under a microscope, suspecting that something in the wound rather than in the atmosphere caused the disease.
    • This, along with his subsequent work on the contraction of arteries and on the skin on the frog, supported his first important scientific contribution, which was published in 1857 and entitled ‘An Essay on the Early Stages of Inflammation’.
    • In 1865, he came across a paper by Louis Pasteur, which demolished the theory of spontaneous generation and proved, among other things, that microbes cause decay.
    • His interest in the subject coupled with his experiences as a surgeon caused him to pursue the theory introduced by Pasteur.
    • He conducted his own experiments and was able to confirm Pasteur's conclusion.
    • He used his findings to develop antiseptic techniques for wounds.
    • He applied a piece of lint dipped in carbolic acid solution to the wound of a boy at Glasgow Royal Infirmary who had sustained a compound fracture.
    • He discovered that no infection had developed after four days.
    • In 1867, Lister reported his findings and published the paper entitled ‘On the Antiseptic Principle in the Practice of Surgery’ in The Lancet and The British Medical Journal.
    • He continued to apply his findings in practice, instructing surgeons under his responsibility to wear clean gloves and wash their hands before and after operations with 5% carbolic acid solutions.
    • Furthermore, carbolic acid solutions were also used to wash instruments and to clean the operating theatre.

    Criticisms of Lister's methods

    • Lister's antiseptic method was not rapidly adopted, mainly due to opposition to the germ theory. However, despite the controversy, his successes and his perseverance could not be ignored.
    • In 1869, Lister left Glasgow University and returned to Edinburgh as successor to Syme as Professor of Surgery at Edinburgh.
    • He continued to improve and develop his methods of antisepsis and asepsis.
    • He found support from the senior apothecary and later MD, Alexander Gunn.
    • His methods had spread at the time, and audiences who came to hear his lecture began to grow.
    • This helped the germ theory to be more understood and accepted and the importance of preventing bacteria from getting into wounds to be recognised.
    • This soon resulted in the rise of aseptic surgery.
    • Criticisms of Lister's ideas were still common.
    • In fact, his ideas were mocked at the meetings of the British Association at Leeds in 1869 and The Lancet warned the entire medical profession against his progressive ideas in 1873.
    • However, Lister gained some supporters including Marcus Beck of the University College Hospital.
    • Lister eventually rejected the use of carbolic acid for superior methods.
    • The carbolic acid spray caused eyes and respiratory tracts irritation and was suspected to damage tissues when applied with bandages.
    • Since germ theory was still in its early stages, his teachings and methods were evolving through his research and experiments to better his techniques.
    • From Edinburgh, Lister moved to King's College Hospital in London in 1877.
    • Then he was elected President of the Clinical Society of London.
    • He remained to be of great contribution to the medical field with his developed method of repairing kneecaps with metal wire, improved technique of mastectomy, use of catgut ligatures, sutures, and rubber drains, and use of aortic tourniquet.
    • Within a few years, antiseptic surgery put an end to surgical diseases and new operations could be performed.
    • Modern scientific surgery was born.
    • Later, the antiseptic method was replaced by the aseptic method, the emphasis being shifted from killing germs to keeping them from wounds.

    Later life

    • Scientific honours from all over the world were awarded to Lister. He was made a baronet by Queen Victoria in 1883. The only surgical operation she underwent – the removal of an abscess – was performed by Lister, as a Surgeon Extraordinary to the Queen.

    • In 1900, he was appointed the Serjeant Surgeon to the Queen, thus becoming the senior surgeon in the Medical Household of the Royal Household of the sovereign, a position he continued to hold when King Edward VII succeeded.
    • When the King came down with appendicitis in 1902, he advised the surgeons who did the operation in the latest antiseptic surgical methods.
    • Lister died in Walmer, Kent on 10 February 1912.
    • After a large public funeral service in Westminster Abbey, he was buried, as he had requested, by his wife’s side in West Hampstead Cemetery.

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