April 5, 1827: Birth of Joseph Lister

April 5, 1827:  Birth of Joseph Lister. He was born in Upton House, Essex, England on April 5, 1827 and died on February 10, 1912. His life covered the entire span of the harshest debates over the germ theory of disease and its general acceptance.

Lister completed his medical education including attendance at the Royal College of Surgeons.  He obtained a post at the University of Glasgow where he performed his research on antisepsis during the years leading up to his seminal paper.  Much of the confirming work for his theories was carried out at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

In short, Lister found that the use of carbolic acid (phenol) before, during and after a surgery virtually eliminated infections, especially the dreaded gangrene infections, which killed many people who survived the physical shock of surgery. It took the observations of Lister coupled with the solid theoretical foundation from Pasteur for other physicians to incorporate the principle of antiseptic surgery into their work.

It is easy to imagine Lister’s amazement when he first heard of Pasteur’s theories and experiments.  He must have been thrilled to find a like-minded scientist toiling in the morass of disease causes, cures and prevention.  Lister’s seminal paper on antiseptic principles in surgery, curiously, did not mention Pasteur’s influence on his research.  However, he acknowledged in other writings his debt to the French bacteriologist.

“‘Permit me,’ wrote Lister, ‘to thank you cordially for having shown me the truth of the theory of germs of putrefaction by your brilliant researches, and for having given me the single principle which has made the antiseptic system a success.’” (De Kruif 1996)

In his paper, Lister described the use of full-strength solutions of carbolic acid.  However, there was a price to pay for not dying of post surgery infection.  Phenol can cause severe chemical burns through its “caustic action” when it is in contact with sensitive tissues. It must have been very painful for the patient even though it might have insured their survival.

A later, careful evaluation of the relative disinfecting power of many substances carried out by Robert Koch found, curiously, that carbolic acid was one of the weakest disinfectants studied.

Lister helped Pasteur by supporting his findings in France with practical examples in Scotland.  Lister’s confirmation of Pasteur’s theory was crucial because it gave other physicians simple tools to use that would determine if germs were causing infections in their patients.  A well-equipped laboratory and training in scientific methods was needed to confirm that spontaneous generation was a fraud or to demonstrate that fermentation was caused by yeast.  All a physician had to do was wash his hands between patients.  If he washed his hands, he would notice immediately that his women patients delivering children stopped dying in droves.  If he removed his bloody apron, applied an antiseptic, wore clean clothes and gloves and sterilized his instruments, surgery patients stopped dying of infections by the carload.

References: De Kruif, Paul. 1996. Microbe Hunters. New York City, N.Y.: Harcourt.

McGuire, Michael J. 2013. The Chlorine Revolution:  Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives. Denver, CO:American Water Works Association.

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