Lister is one of the most famous figures in the history of medicine, and contributed greatly to the advancement and improvement of surgical standards. He is most renowned for his ground-breaking work in the prevention of wound infection, which at the time was a major step forward in surgical practices.
Joseph Lister was born in Upton, Essex, on the 5th of April 1827. After graduating with a BA in 1847 and an MB in 1852 from University College, London, he took appointments as House Surgeon and House Physician while developing his surgical career. A year later, he came to Edinburgh for a short period to study with the then Professor of Clinical Surgery, James Syme, but ended up staying for seven years, and married Syme’s daughter Agnes in 1856. He became a Fellow of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1855.
After a post at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary as Assistant Surgeon, Lister was appointed to Regius Chair of Surgery at Glasgow University and became surgeon to Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1861. It was during this time that he experimented with the cleaning of wounds with carbolic acid to disinfect during operations and dressings. He also developed the absorbable ligature, using catgut instead of silk, which, when treated with carbolic, did much to prevent deep sepsis.
Following these developments, Lister’s reputation spread far and wide and he was awarded with more honours than any other British surgeon. In 1869, he returned to Edinburgh as Professor of Clinical Surgery, and then in 1877 returned south to become chair of Clinical Surgery at King’s College Hospital.
In 1897, he became Baron Lister of Lyme Regis and became the first surgeon to be elected President of the Royal Society. On the coronation of King Edward VII in 1901, Lister was chosen as one of the 12 original members of the Order of Merit, and in 1905, during The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’s quatercentenary, he became the first Fellow by Examination to also be conferred with an Honorary Fellowship.
Lister was described as a quiet and kindly character who showed genuine concern for the welfare of others throughout his illustrious surgical career. He died on the 10th of February 1912, and is now referred to frequently as the ‘father of modern surgery’.