Unknown Historical Figures – Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister was born on April 5, 1827 in Upton, Essex and is from a prosperous Quaker home. After studying at Grove House School in Tottenham, he went on to attend the University of London. This was a rare occurrence considering that only a few universities accepted Quakers at that time. He graduated in 1853, having a Bachelor of Medicine with honors, he then went to the Royal College of Surgeons for a few years after that. Leaving the Royal College of Surgeons in 1856, Lister went to Scotland and spent 11 years in quiet research and study.


In 1867, Lister championed the use of carbolic acid as an antiseptic. He 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 carbolic acid treated fields produced no visible ill-effects on the livestock that later grazed upon them. Lister’s inspiration for this discovery stemmed from Louis Pasteur (French Chemist) and Friedlieb Runge. He left the Quakers and eventually married James Syme’s daughter, Agnes. On their honeymoon, they spent 3 months visiting leading medical institutes in France and Germany.

Lister experimented with the carbolic acid solution that was created from the creosote that Friedlieb Runge had discover years earlier and employed the antiseptic techniques of Louis Pasteur. Through his experimentation with the cleanliness of an operating room, Lister uncovered the way to go about surgery without receiving infections. He found that carbolic acid when rubbed on wounds would drastically reduce the incidence of gangrene. He pioneered the idea of having all clean equipment and a clean environment to operate in and helped save millions of lives in the process. 

Lister left here in 1869, returning to Edinburgh as successor to Syme as Professor of Surgery and continued to develop improved methods of antisepsis and asepsis. His fame had spread by then and as the germ theory of disease became widely accepted, 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 sterile surgery and some now consider Lister “the father of modern antiseptics”.

Lister died on 10 February 1912 at his country home in Walmer, Kent at the age of 84. After a funeral service, he was buried in London. Both the baronetcy and barony became extinct on his death.




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