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’.
Lister was present at the first surgical procedure carried out under anaesthetic in 1846. He 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 and later his house surgeon. Lister also married Syme's daughter Agnes, and on their honeymoon they visited many medical institutes and universities. Agnes became Lister's partner in research and assisted him until her death in 1893.
Lister had moved to Glasgow in 1860 and become 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.
Lister is now known as the ‘father of antiseptic surgery’.
1844 - entered University College, London
1853 - visited Edinburgh to witness the surgical practice of James Syme
1856 - became assistant surgeon to the Royal Infirmary
1857 - read before the Royal Society a paper in which he made detailed observations on blood clotting
1860 - appointed to the chair of surgery at Glasgow University
1869 - appointed professor of clinical surgery at Edinburgh
1867 - published papers in The Lancet which announced his system of antiseptic surgery
1877 - succeeded Sir William Fergusson as Professor of Surgery at King's College, London
1893 - death of Agnes Lister, Joseph's wife and longtime research partner
1895 - elected President of the Royal Society
1883 - Baronetcy conferred on him
1897 - raised to the peerage as Baron Lister of Lyme Regis
1907 - received the Freedom of the City of London.