Lister | Sir | Joseph | 1827-1912 | baronet | professor of surgery, University of Glasgow

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Joseph Lister (1827-1912) is one of the most important names in the history of surgery. The inventor of antiseptic surgery, Lister was born in 1827 into a Quaker family, the son of Joseph Jackson Lister, fellow of the Royal Society and inventor of the achromatic lens for microscopes. Because of his non-conformist religious beliefs, Lister was excluded from Oxford and Cambridge universities as well as King's College, London, so he studied medicine at University College. Here, he was influenced by opthalamist Wharton Jones and physiologist William Sharpley.

In 1853, Lister moved to Edinburgh, and in 1860, he took the chair of clinical surgery at the University of Glasgow. It was here - and at the attached Royal Infirmary - that he became deeply involved with antiseptics. His work brought him into regular contact with the atrocious conditions at the Infirmary, where amputations had no more than a 60% 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. His work continued when he obtained chairs in the University of Edinburgh in 1869 and University of London in 1877.

Influenced by the theories of Pasteur, who had demolished the accepted belief that infection was due either to oxidation of the wound or 'spontaneous generation' of pathogens, 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 acid (phenol, a coal tar derivate), 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. This led to a dressing made of shellac (plaster) mixed with 25% carbolic acid, spread on calico and coated with gutta-percha dissolved in benzene. Thus, the carbolic acid prevented bacteria from entering the dressing and the gutta-percha prevented the carbolic acid from entering the wound. 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. This avoided the caustic disinfectant from having to enter the wound while ensuring a germ-free environment. A carbolic acid spray (to disinfect the atmosphere of the operating theatre) was tried but eventually abandoned because the spray's very marginal benefits did not justify its dangerous side effects (carbolic acid inhalation). Cleanliness was a far better disinfectant for operating rooms.

Lister's other innovations were improved ligatures (which, because of disinfection, could be fully embedded in the wound, without worry about infection, and therefore did not need to hang out of the wound as it healed) and the introduction into Britain of drainage tubes - which he used in an operation on Queen Victoria in his role as Surgeon in Ordinary to the monarch.

Despite the widespread academic hostility to and scepticism about his innovations (especially on his return to London), Lister served as president of the Royal Society (1895-1900) and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1896), as well as being a founding member of the British Institute of Preventative Medicine - which now bears his name. On his death, there was considerable support for a burial in Westminster Abbey, but he had insisted on being buried with his wife.


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

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

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

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1852: Awarded Batchelor of Medicine (MB), University of London

1852: Awarded Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS)

1860: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society

1860-1869: Appointed Professor of Surgery, University of Glasgow

1869-1877: Appointed Chair of Clinical Surgery, University of Edinburgh

1877-1892: Appointed Chair of Clinical Surgery, King's College, London

1878: Appointed Surgeon in Ordinary to Queen Victoria

1880: Awarded Honorary Doctorate, University of Cambridge

1880: Awarded Honorary Doctorate, University of Oxford

1881: Awarded Boudet Prize

1883: Awarded Baronetcy of Lyme Regis

1885: Awarded Prussian Honour "pour le mérite"

1893: Elected Foreign Secretary, Royal Society

1894-1900: Elected President of the Royal Society

1896: President, British Association for the Advancement of Science

1902: Awarded Order of Merit


List of sources for the biographical information:

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

Concise Dictionary of National Biography, vol II, 1901-1970, (Oxford , Oxford University Press, 1982)

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