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Lister, Joseph, 1827-1912, Baron Lister, surgeon

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Joseph Lister, first Baron Lister, of Lyme Regis, founder of antiseptic surgery, was born at Upton House, Upton, Essex, 5 April 1827, into a Quaker family. He was educated at Grove House School, Tottenham, but because of his non-conformist religious beliefs, was excluded from Oxford and Cambridge universities as well as King's College, London, so he studied medicine at University College, London, which he entered in 1844. Whilst still at school, he had decided to be a surgeon. He took the B.A. degree of the University of London in 1847, but, owing to an attack of smallpox, he did not begin his medical studies until the autumn of 1848, and was thus rather older than most of his fellow-students.

On the completion of his career at University College, Lister went to Edinburgh in 1853, to work with the noted surgeon, James Syme. He decided to settle in Edinburgh, and in 1856, became assistant surgeon to the Royal Infirmary and took an active part in teaching in the extra-mural school, while continuing his researches on inflammation.

In 1860, he was appointed to the Chair of surgery in Glasgow University, and a year later became surgeon to the Glasgow Infirmary. It was here that he became deeply involved with antiseptics and made the observations and discoveries, which revolutionised the treatment of disease and injuries. His work brought him into regular contact with the atrocious conditions at the Infirmary, where amputations had no more than a 60 percent survival rate, and operations to the abdomen and cranium were not even attempted because of the enormous risk of infection. Lister experimented with his new techniques on compound fracture victims, because their high mortality rates, and their frequency in an industrial city such as Glasgow made them ideal for repeated experimentation.

Influenced by the theories of Louis Pasteur, who had proved that putrefaction, like fermentation, was dependent upon the presence in the air of living germs, Lister began to experiment with chemical methods of preventing the infection of wounds by airborne bacilli. His early experiments involved the coating of wounds with a potent dose of carbolic, which formed an antiseptic crust of coagulated blood on the wound. His earliest attempts at this procedure were unsuccessful, but he soon began to have remarkable improvements in success rates. His method was also applied to tuberculosis of the wrist joint, with a similar degree of success (it saved a number of lives, and also a number of hands from amputation). The drawback of the carbolic acid treatment, however, was the toxicity of the acid. He was aware that the damage caused by the acid treatment could also damage the body's repair mechanisms. This led to the development of a number of antiseptic wound dressings designed to provide a disinfectant barrier between the wound and the surrounding air, while reducing to a minimum the carbolic acid entering the damaged tissue. He also introduced the sterilisation of surgical instruments with heat and carbolic acid and the frequent cleaning of the surgeon's hands during an operation with a mild antiseptic solution. He also introduced cleanliness for all operating rooms.

In 1869, he became Professor of clinical surgery at Edinburgh and remained there until he was invited to King's College, London, in 1877. Lister filled the Chair of clinical surgery at King's College for fifteen years, and during the whole of this time was actively engaged in teaching and in pursuing his researches, besides practising as a surgeon and doing much public work.

As a result of his main discoveries, all made in the course of a very few years, the practice of surgery underwent a complete revolution. In Lister's wards septic diseases did not occur, post-operative pyaemia, hospital gangrene, and tetanus disappeared, and erysipelas was rare, unless introduced. Occasionally wounds did not heal without suppuration, but even this was exceptional, and whenever it occurred, all the factors in the case were carefully investigated to ascertain the cause of the failure. Very soon his methods were applied to all kinds of surgical operations. The vanishing of septic diseases enlarged enormously the field of surgery, since operations formerly dreaded, owing to this risk, could now be carried out in safety. The modern development of surgery was only possible as the result of his discoveries. However, Lister's methods did not meet with rapid acceptance by the surgeons of this country. His own pupils adopted his system with enthusiasm, but the older surgeons were very slow in accepting it. Abroad it met with earlier and greater recognition, especially in France and Germany.

He took an active part in founding, in 1891, the British Institute of Preventive Medicine on the lines of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and became its first chairman. In 1903, its name was changed to the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine. Joseph Lister died 10 February 1912. He was buried beside his wife, at the West Hampstead cemetery


Lister was the son of Joseph Jackson Lister, a Fellow of the Royal Society and inventor of the achromatic doublet lens.

Lister married, in 1856, Agnes, the eldest daughter of James Syme, the Edinburgh surgeon. She died in 1903. They had no children.

Lister was particularly influenced at an early stage of his career by two men at the University of London, Wharton Jones and William Sharpey. The former was Professor of ophthalmic medicine and surgery, and the latter the celebrated Professor of physiology who did so much to lay the foundations on which the modern school of British physiology was raised.

Other Significant Information

Noatable publications:

The Collected Papers of Joseph, Baron Lister, ( 1909)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1847: B.A. from the University of London

1860-1869: Professor of surgery, University of Glasgow

1860: Fellow of the Royal Society

1869-1877: Professor of clinical surgery, Edinburgh University

1877-1892: Professor of clinical surgery at King's College, London

1879: LL.D. from the University of Glasgow

1880-1888: Member of the council of the Royal College of Surgeons

1883: Baronetcy conferred on him

1895-1900: President of the Royal Society

1896: President of the British Association

1897: Raised to the peerage as Baron Lister, of Lyme Regis

1907: Freedom of the city of London.


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillispie, Charles C, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (New York, Scribner's, 1973)

Harrison, Brian (editor), Dictionary of National Biography, ( University Press, 1995)

, Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol 14, (Chicago, William Benton, 1964)

Rules or Conventions

Authority record created according to theNational Council on ArchivesRules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names (NCA Rules)1997 and International Council on Archives: Ad Hoc Committee on Descriptive StandardsInternational Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (ISAAR)CPF1995

Author and Date of Biographical History

Personal name authority record compiled for the GASHE project by John O'Brien, using the biographical record created by the NAHSTE project, Glasgow University Archive Services, 5 August 2002