Joseph Lister Father of Antiseptic surgery

Born on April 5, 1827 in Essex, England, Joseph Lister grew up in a Quaker family. At a young age he decided he wanted to be a surgeon. He was likely influenced by his father, a wine merchant and amateur scientist who taught his son how to use a microscope. Lister went to Quaker schools and eventually studied medicine at the University of London where he graduated with honors in 1852. A year later James Syme, a notable surgeon of the time, hired him as his assistant. In 1857, he married Syme’s daughter. He became chair of Clinical Surgery at Edinburgh and later at King’s College (Cartwright). He was Queen Victoria’s surgeon and she made him a baron in 1883. After a long, impressive career, Joseph Lister retired in 1893 following the death of his wife. He died in February of 1912 at the age of 84 in Kent, England (Famous Scientists).

When Lister began his career it was widely accepted that miasma, or being infected by bad air, was the cause of sepsis and other diseases that were very common after surgery. However, after reading Louis Pasteur’s work, Lister started to believe that “dust” particles travelling through the air were actually responsible and that if he could prevent these from getting to the wound he could prevent post- surgical infections. Although he was not entirely correct, his theories led to him making his hospital and surgeries more hygienic (Cartwright). Lister knew that sewers were being disinfected with carbolic acid and decided to test using it to disinfect his hands and surgical tools. He also put it on lint and covered his patients’ wounds with the cloth and sprayed carbolic acid in the air during surgery to prevent infection. Although this basic medical hygiene sounds rudimentary, when Lister began to put it into practice it was revolutionary. Most doctors in the 19th century did not wash their hands or tools. In addition to not believing the cleanliness of an operating room or hospital ward was important, surgeons also saw the blood on their coats as a symbol of their experience and as a result did not wash their coats. Wearing a fresh coat for every surgery, as Lister did, was unheard of. Lister began the practice of antisepsis and discovered the link between disinfecting and lower rates of infection in hospitals (Famous Scientists).

Lister published his findings, including the fact that post-surgery deaths dropped thirty percent in just four years between 1864 and 1869 in his hospital ward, in medical journals. He also toured surgical centers and hospitals in Germany and the United States to spread his ideas. (Cartwright). When Lister first published his results, others did not believe antisepsis was the reason for his results because the germ theory was not widely accepted. Many surgeons tested out his techniques but did not do them correctly. However, doctors in Munich managed to correctly and there the death rates dropped almost 80%. Although originally Lister’s contemporaries were skeptical of his findings, within two decades they were widely accepted and put into practice around the world (Famous Scientists).

Lister’s ideas were important because they revolutionized modern medicine. He was part of the Bacterial Revolution which led to the modern understanding of germs. His work on disinfection and killing aerial bacteria has saved countless lives. Although the techniques he employed were primitive compared to today’s practices, they opened the door for modern medical science. In addition, he pioneered new ways to treat bone fractures and new ways to do internal stitching (famous scientists). Lister’s discoveries made surgery much safer and survivable. He helped transform hospitals from a place to die to a place to get treated and healthy. Although Lister himself did not completely understand the science behind his theories, he understood how to apply what he did know towards saving lives. Lister’s role in the bacterial revolution was crucial to the public health reform which led to lower mortality rates in Britain. Lister saved many lives in his lifetime but his work continues to be practiced at every medical center around the world and has affected every single person alive now.


Cartwright, Frederick F. "Joseph Lister, Baron Lister." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 Apr. 2007. Web. 30 Jan. 2017. <>

"Joseph Lister." Famous Scientists. Web. 30 Jan. 2017. <>.


Created with images by wellcome images - "Credit: Wellcome Library, London" • VCU Libraries - "Main Hospital Operating Room" • SilasCamargo - "hospital bed doctor" • JeepersMedia - "Listerine"

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