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Joseph Lister

Health and the People>Revolution in Surgery>Joseph Lister

What do we know about Lister?

  • Dates: 1827- 1912
  • Place of Birth: England
  • Background & Education: University College London
  • Career: Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, 1861, Chair of Clinical Surgery at Kings College London, 1877. Created a Baronet in 1883 and became one of the 12 original members of the Order of Meri in 1902.
  • Famous Publications: Various lectures and publications on work

Contribution to Medicine

  • Having observed carbolic sprays being used in sewage works to reduce the smell, Lister tried using it in the operating theatre in the early 1860s. The result was reduced infection rates.
  • Hearing about Pasteur’s about Germ Theory in 1865, Lister realised that germs could be in the air, on instruments and people’s hands. He started using carbolic spray on instruments and bandages in an effort to kill the germs.
  • His first experiment with an antiseptic method was in August 1865. A young boy, Jamie Greenless had been run over by a cart and fractured his leg and the bones were sticking through the skin. The normal procedure would have been to amputate the leg. Instead, Lister set the bones and used dressings which had been soaked in carbolic acid. The dressings stayed in place for 4 days and after that the fracture and skin healed well.
  • Lister published his work in March 1867 but faced opposition. Doctors didn’t like to use the spray as they found it unpleasant on their skin or to breathe in. People were also not very aware of Pasteur’s germ theory.
  • Lister used a well-publicised operation at King’s college Hospital in 1877 to promote the use of carbolic spray.
  • The use of antiseptics immediately reduced death rates from as high as 50% in 1864-66 to around 15% in 1867-70.
  • Antiseptics allowed surgeons to operate with less fear of patients dying from infection. The number of operations was 10x higher in 1912 than 1867.

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