What Did Joseph Lister Discover?

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Joseph Lister discovered in 1865 that by using carbolic acid, or phenol, as an antiseptic, a person’s chance of dying form infection after surgery could be reduced. His discovery helped decrease deaths in his hospital ward during 4 years to 15 percent. He is often referred to as the “founder of antiseptic medicine.”

Lister was born on April 5, 1827, in Upton, England. Lister had an interest in surgery from a young age and was at the first surgery performed using anesthesia in 1846. He studied at Oxford University and in 1852 became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. He moved to Glasgow to become a Professor of Surgery in 1860.

While in Glasgow, he read Louis Pasteur’s work on microorganisms as a cause of infection. Lister observed that about 50 percent of patients who received amputations would die from an infection known as sepsis. Using a technique by Pasteur, Lister experimented with treating a wound with coverings soaked in phenol. He observed that when this was done, infection rates dropped. Lister expanded this to handwashing and sterilizing instruments and rooms before surgery and saw a lowered rate of infection throughout his ward. His techniques would go on to be adopted by other surgeons. Lister died in Walmer, England, on February 5, 1912, when he was 84.