Joseph Lister

29.03.2015 |

Episode #2 of the course “Unknown Scientists Who Changed The World”

Joseph Lister was an English surgeon who is responsible for the clean surgery practices we have today. He refused to believe the accepted knowledge of the time of what prevents bacterial infections during surgery and spent two years performing his own studies to come up with better practices grounded in more accurate science. Lister is responsible for the white gowns doctors wear during surgery as well as the practice of using gauze and carbolic acid (now known as phenol) to clean wounds post-surgery.

Lister was born in Upton, England in 1827 to a prosperous Quaker family. Few institutions accepted Quakers at the time, one of which was University College, London, where he enrolled. After obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in botany, he went on to the Royal College of Surgeons. Lister died in 1912 in Walmer, England.

His major breakthrough came in 1861, when he observed that 45-50% of amputation patients died from sepsis. In 1865, he studied Louis Pasteur’s theory that microorganisms cause infection. Using phenol as an antiseptic, he reduced the mortality rate in his ward to 15% in just four years. Phenol was previously used to ease the stench from fields irrigated with sewage waste. Lister noticed that the livestock that later grazed those same fields had no apparent ill-effects. In addition to pioneering modern antiseptic techniques, he also improved the techniques used during mastectomies and kneecap repair.

Joseph Lister was the most renowned surgeon during his time, and he even treated Queen Victoria using his new methods. Today, he is regarded as the “founder of antiseptic medicine.”


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