Lister, Joseph (1827–1912)

Citation metadata

Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of World Scientists, Rev. ed.
Publisher: Facts On File
Series: Facts on File Science Library
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 5)

Document controls

Main content

About this Person
Born: April 05, 1827 in Upton, United Kingdom
Died: February 10, 1912 in Walmer, United Kingdom
Occupation: Surgeon
Other Names: Lister of Lyme Regis
Full Text: 
Page 458

Lister, Joseph (1827–1912)

English Surgeon

Joseph Lister developed the antiseptic surgical techniques that greatly reduced the postoperative mortality rates of Page 459  |  Top of Articlethe day, which were in the 50-percent range. Although the surgical field was slow to acknowledge the efficacy of these techniques, they eventually revolutionized the practice of surgery, allowing wounds to heal without infection.

Lister was born on April 5, 1827, at Upton, in Essex, England. He was the fourth of seven children (and second of four sons) born to Isabella Harris, a former schoolteacher, and Joseph Jackson Lister, a physicist who earned his living as a vintner. When Lister was five years old, his father was inducted into the Royal Society in recognition of his construction of the achromatic microscope, and the elder Lister taught his son microscopy at an early age. In his youth, Lister attended private Quaker schools at Hitchin and then at Grove House in Tottenham.

In 1844, at the age of 17, Lister enrolled at University College, London (the only English college open to non-Anglicans). He earned his bachelor of arts degree within three years, and remained at the university to study medicine. After overcoming a case of smallpox, he distinguished himself in his medical studies under the ophthalmic surgeon Wharton Jones and the physiologist William Sharpey, becoming house physician under W. H. Walsheand house surgeon under Sir John Erichsen. He earned his medical degree in 1852, when the Royal College of Surgeons admitted him into its fellowship.

Lister's first two published papers, “Observations on the Contractile Tissue of the Iris,” and “Observations on the Muscular Tissue of the Skin,” both appearing in 1853, established his reputation for excellent research internationally. Sharpey recommended Lister to professor of clinical surgery James Syme of the University of Edinburgh, where Lister became supernumerary house surgeon, then resident house surgeon, and then, in 1856, assistant surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. In April of that year, he married Syme's eldest daughter, Agnes; the couple had no children, but maintained a long and happy marriage.

The Royal Society of London published a series of three papers by Lister in its Philosophical Transactions in 1858, resulting in his induction into the society's fellowship in 1860, at the age of 33. That year, the University of Glasgow appointed him regius professor of surgery, a position that carried no clinical duties. Within a year, however, he took charge of the surgical wards of the Royal Infirmary.

Despite Lister's vigilant supervision, the wards' postoperative mortality rates matched those of most hospitals at the time—about 50 percent. Surgical science had recently solved the problem of anesthetization, but it had not solved the problem of sepsis, which the German chemist Justus von Liebig proposed in 1839 to be combustion of body tissue when its moisture met oxygen. Listerwas dubious of this explanation and considered sepsis to be a kind of decomposition of tissue.

In the early 1860s, LOUIS PASTEUR explained decay as a kind of fermentation caused by air-borne organisms, a theory that supported and advanced Lister's own theory of sepsis. At about this same time, Lister learned of the anti-parasitic action of carbolic acid, which destroyed ento-zoa (as well as the smell) in the sewage at Carlisle. Lister experimented with carbolic acid dressings, sprays, and putties through late 1866, and humbly announced his results to the British Medical Association at its Dublin meeting in August 1867: his surgical wards at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary had remained free of sepsis for the last nine months, a development that defied the statistics of the time. Surgeons, stuck in their own dogma, resisted his antiseptic techniques until their efficacy became undeniable.

In 1869, Lister returned to Edinburgh to succeed his former mentor and father-in-law Syme (who had suffered a stroke) in the chair of clinical surgery. After eight happy years in his wife's hometown, Lister accepted the newly established chair of clinical surgery at King's College, in London. The latter period of his career brought much recognition: he was knighted in 1883 and made a peer (Baron Lister of Lyme Regis) in 1897. From 1895 through 1900, he served as president of the Royal Society. Earlier, in 1891, he became chairman of the British Institute of Preventive Medicine (later known as the Lister Institute). Lister died on February 10, 1912, at Walmer, in Kent, England.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX4065100560