Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister, OM, FRS (5 April 1827 – 10 February 1912) was an English surgeon who promoted the idea of sterile surgery while working at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. He successfully introduced carbolic acid (phenol) to sterilize surgical instruments and to clean wounds.
At Quaker schools he became fluent in French and German which were, serendipitously, also the leading languages of medical research. He attended the University of London, one of only a few institutions which was open to Quakers at that time. He initially studied the Arts but at the age of 25 he graduated with honours as Bachelor of Medicine and entered the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1854, Lister became both first assistant to and friend of surgeon James Syme at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He subsequently left the Quakers, joined the Scottish Episcopal Church and eventually married Syme's daughter Agnes. For their honeymoon they spent 3 months visiting leading medical centres (Hospitals and Universities) in France and Germany, by this time Agnes was enamoured of medical research and partnered him in the laboratory for the rest of his life.
Lister became aware of a paper published (in French) by the French chemist Louis Pasteur which showed that rotting and fermentation could occur without any oxygen if micro-organisms were present. Lister confirmed this with his own experiments. If micro-organisms were causing gangrene, the problem was how to get rid of them. Pasteur suggested three methods: filter, heat, or expose them to chemical solutions. The first two were inappropriate in a human wound, so Lister experimented with the third.
Carbolic acid (phenol) had been in use as a means of deodorizing sewage, so Lister tested the results of spraying instruments, the surgical incisions, and dressings with a solution of it. Lister found that carbolic acid solution swabbed on wounds markedly reduced the incidence of gangrene and subsequently published a series of articles on the Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery describing this procedure in Volume 90, Issue 2299 of The Lancet published on 21 September 1867.
He also made surgeons 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 conclusions was to stop using porous natural materials in manufacturing the handles of medical instruments.
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. His fame had spread by then and audiences of 400 often came to hear him lecture.
As the germ theory of disease became more 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. Some consider Lister "the father of modern antisepsis."
In life Lister was said to be a shy, unassuming man, deeply religious in his beliefs, and uninterested in social success or financial gain.
Lister died on 10 February, 1912 at his country home in Walmer, Kent at the age of 84. After a funeral service at Westminster Abbey, he was buried at Hampstead Cemetery, Fortune Green, London in a plot to the south-west of central chapel.
A British Institution of Preventive Medicine, previously named after Edward Jenner was renamed in 1899 in honour of Lister.
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.