Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister

For the soldier and Victoria Cross recipient, see Joseph Lister (VC). For the fictional character, see Raffles (Lord Lister).
The Right Honourable
The Lord Lister

Photograph of Lister in 1902
President of the Royal Society
In office
Preceded by The Lord Kelvin
Succeeded by Sir William Huggins
Personal details
Born (1827-04-05)5 April 1827
Upton House, West Ham, England
Died 10 February 1912(1912-02-10) (aged 84)
Walmer, Kent, England
Nationality English
Spouse(s) Agnes Lister (nee Syme)

Scientific career

Fields Medicine
Institutions King's College London
University of Glasgow
University of Edinburgh
University College, London
Alma mater University College, London
Known for Surgical sterile techniques
Notable awards Royal Medal (1880)
Albert Medal (1894)
Copley Medal (1902)

Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister, OM PC PRS (5 April 1827  10 February 1912), known between 1883 and 1897 as Sir Joseph Lister, Bt., was a British surgeon and a pioneer of antiseptic surgery. By applying Louis Pasteur's advances in microbiology, he promoted the idea of sterile portable ports while working at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Lister successfully introduced carbolic acid (now known as phenol) to sterilise surgical instruments and to clean wounds, which led to a reduction in post-operative infections and made surgery safer for patients, distinguishing himself as the "father of modern surgery".[1]

Early life and education

Lister came from a prosperous Quaker home in West Ham, Essex, England, a son of Joseph Jackson Lister, a pioneer of achromatic object lenses for the compound microscope.

At school, he became a fluent reader of French and German. A young Joseph Lister attended Benjamin Abbott's Isaac Brown Academy, a Quaker school in Hitchin (since converted into the "Lord Lister" public house).[2] As a teenager, Lister attended Grove House School Tottenham, studying mathematics, natural science, and languages.

Joseph Lister c. 1855
Lister with fellow Residents at the Old Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, c.1855 (Lister is in the front row with his hands clasped)

He attended University College, London,[3] one of only a few institutions which accepted Quakers at that time. He initially studied botany and obtained a bachelor of Arts degree in 1847.[4] He registered as a medical student and graduated with honours as Bachelor of Medicine, subsequently entering the Royal College of Surgeons at the age of 26. In 1854, Lister became both first assistant to and friend of surgeon James Syme at the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in Scotland.

In 1867, Lister championed the use of carbolic acid as an antiseptic, such that it became the first widely used antiseptic in surgery. He first suspected it would prove an adequate disinfectant because it was used to ease the stench from fields irrigated with sewage waste. He presumed it was safe because fields treated with carbolic acid produced no apparent ill-effects on the livestock that later grazed upon them. He subsequently left the Quakers, joined the Scottish Episcopal Church, and eventually married Syme's daughter, Agnes.[5] On their honeymoon, they spent 3 months visiting leading medical institutes (hospitals and universities) in France and Germany. By this time, Agnes was enamoured of medical research and was Lister's partner in the laboratory for the rest of her life.

Career and work

Before Lister's studies of surgery, most people believed that chemical damage from exposures to bad air was responsible for infections in wounds. Hospital wards were occasionally aired out at midday as a precaution against the spread of infection via miasma, but facilities for washing hands or a patient's wounds were not available. A surgeon was not required to wash his hands before seeing a patient because such practices were not considered necessary to avoid infection. Despite the work of Ignaz Semmelweis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., hospitals practiced surgery under unsanitary conditions. Surgeons of the time referred to the "good old surgical stink"[6] and took pride in the stains on their unwashed operating gowns as a display of their experience.

While he was a professor of surgery at the University of Glasgow, Lister became aware of a paper published by the French chemist, Louis Pasteur, showing that food spoilage could occur under anaerobic conditions if micro-organisms were present. Pasteur suggested three methods to eliminate the micro-organisms responsible: filtration, exposure to heat, or exposure to solution/chemical solutions. Lister confirmed Pasteur's conclusions with his own experiments and decided to use his findings to develop antiseptic techniques for wounds.[7] As the first two methods suggested by Pasteur were dangerous and unsafe for the treatment of human tissue, Lister experimented with the third idea.

Lister spraying phenol over patient.

In 1834, Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge discovered phenol, also known as carbolic acid, which he derived in an impure form from coal tar. At that time, there was uncertainty between the substance of creosote a chemical had been used to treat the wood used for railway ties and ships since it protected the wood from rotting and carbolic acid.[8] Upon hearing that creosote had been used for treating sewage, Lister began to test the efficacy of carbolic acid when applied directly to wounds.[9]

Joseph Lister in his youth

Therefore, Lister tested the results of spraying instruments, the surgical incisions, and dressings with a solution of carbolic acid. Lister found that the solution swabbed on wounds remarkably reduced the incidence of gangrene.[10] In August 1865, Lister applied a piece of lint dipped in carbolic acid solution onto the wound of a seven-year-old boy at Glasgow Infirmary, who had sustained a compound fracture after a cart wheel had passed over his leg. After four days, he renewed the pad and discovered that no infection had developed, and after a total of six weeks he was amazed to discover that the boy's bones had fused back together, without the danger of suppuration. He subsequently published his results in The Lancet[11][12] in a series of six articles, running from March through July 1867.

He instructed surgeons under his responsibility to wear clean gloves and wash their hands before and after operations with 5% carbolic acid solutions. Instruments were also washed in the same solution and assistants sprayed the solution in the operating theatre. One of his additional suggestions was to stop using porous natural materials in manufacturing the handles of medical instruments.[13]

Lister left Glasgow in 1869, returning to Edinburgh as successor to Syme as Professor of Surgery at the University of Edinburgh and continued to develop improved methods of antisepsis and asepsis. Amongst those he worked with there, who helped him and his work, was the senior apothecary and later MD, Dr Alexander Gunn. Lister's fame had spread by then, and audiences of 400 often came to hear him lecture. As The "Germ Theory of Disease" became more understood, it was realised that infection could be better avoided by preventing bacteria from getting into wounds in the first place. This led to the rise of less primitive surgery. On the anniversary of his death, in 2012, Lister was considered by most in the medical field as "The Father of Modern Surgery".[9]

Surgical technique

Lister moved from Scotland to King's College Hospital, in London. In 1881 he was elected President of the Clinical Society of London.[14] He also developed a method of repairing kneecaps with metal wire and improved the technique of mastectomy.

Later life

Lister retired from practice after his wife, who had long helped him in research, died in 1893 in Italy, during one of the few holidays they allowed themselves. Studying and writing lost appeal for him and he sank into religious melancholy. Despite suffering a stroke, he still came into the public light from time to time. On 24 August 1902 Edward VII came down with appendicitis two days before his scheduled coronation. Like all internal surgery at the time, the appendectomy needed by the King still posed an extremely high risk of death by post-operational infection, and surgeons did not dare operate without consulting Britain's leading surgical authority. Lister obligingly advised them in the latest antiseptic surgical methods (which they followed to the letter), and the King survived, later telling Lister, "I know that if it had not been for you and your work, I wouldn't be sitting here today."

Lister died on 10 February 1912 at his country home (now known as Coast House[15][16]) in Walmer, Kent at the age of 84. After a funeral service at Westminster Abbey, he was buried at West Hampstead Cemetery, London in a plot to the south-east of central chapel. Both the baronetcy and barony became extinct on his death.

Legacy and honours

Lister was president of the Royal Society between 1895 and 1900. Following his death, a memorial fund led to the founding of the Lister Medal, seen as the most prestigious prize that could be awarded to a surgeon.

His discoveries were greatly praised and in 1883 Queen Victoria created him a Baronet, of Park Crescent in the Parish of St Marylebone in the County of Middlesex.[17] In 1897 he was further honoured when Her Majesty raised him to the peerage as Baron Lister, of Lyme Regis in the County of Dorset.[18][19] He also became one of the twelve original members of the Order of Merit and a Privy Councillor in King Edward's Coronation Honours in 1902.[20]

Among foreign honours, he received the Pour le Mérite, one of Prussia's highest orders of merit.

Two postage stamps were issued in September 1965 to honour Lister for his contributions to antiseptic surgery.

Lister is one of the two surgeons in the United Kingdom who have the honour of having a public monument in London. Lister's stands in Portland Place; the other surgeon is John Hunter. There is a statue of Lister in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow, celebrating his links with the city.

In 1903, the British Institute of Preventative Medicine was renamed Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in honour of Lister.[21] The building, along with another adjacent building, forms what is now the Lister Hospital in Chelsea, which opened in 1985. In 2000, it became part of the HCA group of hospitals.

A building at Glasgow Royal Infirmary which houses cytopathology, microbiology and pathology departments was named in his honour to recognise his work at the hospital.

Lister Hospital in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, England is named in honour of Lister.

The Discovery Expedition of 1901–04 named the highest point in the Royal Society Range, Antarctica, Mount Lister.[22]

In 1879, Listerine mouthwash was named after him for his work in antisepsis. Microorganisms named in his honour include the pathogenic bacterial genus Listeria named by J. H. H. Pirie, typified by the food-borne pathogen Listeria monocytogenes, as well as the slime mould genus Listerella, first described by Eduard Adolf Wilhelm Jahn in 1906.

He is depicted in the Academy Award–winning 1936 film, The Story of Louis Pasteur, by Halliwell Hobbes. In the film, Lister is one of the beleaguered microbiologist's most noted supporters in the otherwise largely hostile medical community and is the key speaker in the ceremony in his honour.

Lister's name is one of twenty-three names featured on the Frieze of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.[23] It is not documented as to why these names were chosen, however it features names of pioneers in the fields of hygiene and tropical medicine.[24]

Image of Lister's name on the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, in Keppel Street
Image of Lister's name on the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, in Keppel Street

See also


  1. Pitt, Dennis; Aubin, Jean-Michel (2012-10-01). "Joseph Lister: father of modern surgery". Canadian Journal of Surgery. 55 (5): E8–E9. doi:10.1503/cjs.007112. ISSN 0008-428X. PMC 3468637Freely accessible. PMID 22992425.
  3. John Bankston (2004). Joseph Lister and the Story of Antiseptics (Uncharted, Unexplored, and Unexplained). Bear, Del: Mitchell Lane Publishers. ISBN 1-58415-262-1.
  4. "Sketch of Sir Joseph Lister". Popular science monthly. Mar 1898. Retrieved 14 May 2013.
  5. Ann Lamont (March 1992). "Joseph Lister: father of modern surgery". Creation. 14 (2): 48–51. Lister married Syme's daughter Agnes and became a member of the Episcopal church
  6. Millard, Candice (2011). The destiny of the republic : a tale of madness, medicine and the murder of an anonymous president. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 9780385526265.
  7. Lister, Baron Joseph (2010-08-01). "The Classic: On the Antiseptic Principle in the Practice of Surgery". Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research. 468 (8): 2012–2016. doi:10.1007/s11999-010-1320-x. ISSN 0009-921X. PMC 2895849Freely accessible. PMID 20361283.
  8. Schorlemmer, C. (30 March 1884). "The History of Creosote, Cedriret and Pittacal". Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry. 4: 152–157.
  9. 1 2 Pitt, Dennis; Aubain, Jean-Michel (October 2012). "Joseph Lister: father of modern surgery". Canadian Journal of Surgery. 55 (5): E8-E9. doi:10.1503/cjs.007112. PMC 3468637Freely accessible. PMID 22992425.
  10. Lister, Joseph (18 July 1868). "An Address on the Antiseptic System of Treatment in Surgery". British Medical Journal. 2 (394): 53–56. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.394.53. PMC 2310876Freely accessible. PMID 20745202.
  11. Lister, Joseph (21 September 1867). "ON THE ANTISEPTIC PRINCIPLE IN THE PRACTICE OF SURGERY". The Lancet. 90 (2299): 353–356. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(02)51827-4.
  12. Lister, Joseph (1 January 1870). "ON THE EFFECTS OF THE ANTISEPTIC SYSTEM OF TREATMENT UPON THE SALUBRITY OF A SURGICAL HOSPITAL". The Lancet. 95 (2418): 2–4. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(02)31273-X.
  13. Metcalfe, Peter; Metcalfe, Roger (2006). Engineering Studies: Year 11. Glebe, N.S.W.: Pascal Press. p. 151. ISBN 9781741252491. Retrieved 2014-07-07.
  14. "Transactions of the Clinical Society of London Volume 18 1886". Clinical Society. Retrieved 2012-10-23.
  15. Coast House
  16. High Street Deal - Blue Plaque Walks in Deal
  17. The London Gazette: no. 25300. p. 6687. 28 December 1883.
  18. The London Gazette: no. 26821. p. 758. 9 February 1897.
  19. The Times, Friday, 1 Jan 1897; Issue 35089; p. 8; col A
  20. Coronation Honours. The Times, Thursday, 27 Jun 1902; Issue 36804; p. 5; col B
  21. "Our Heritage". The Lister Institute. Retrieved 2015-11-24.
  22. "Mount Lister". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 2010-02-09.
  23. LSHTM, LSHTM. "Behind the Frieze - Baron Lister of Lyme Regis (1827-1912) - See more at:". Retrieved 2016-11-22. External link in |website=, |title= (help)
  24. LSHTM, LSHTM. "Behind the Frieze". Retrieved 2016-11-22. External link in |website= (help)
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