Portrait of The Right Honourable Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister [1827 – 1912], British surgeon, aged about 75
Photograph c. 1900 by Elliot & Fry. Wellcome Images
Antiseptic surgery and the drive towards a sterile environment in the operating theatre are bedrocks of modern procedures. It is hard to imagine a time when the importance of hygiene in hospitals was not well understood.But without the unique contribution of one surgeon, who knows what would have happened and when? Lord Joseph Lister
(1827-1912), the insightful and dedicated surgeon responsible for this new type of surgery, died one hundred years ago today. His experiments and improvements regarding carbolic acid solution and the preparation of the surgical theatre made an enormous impact in fighting the risk of infection.Being a Quaker Lister was denied entry to Oxford and Cambridge Universities as only members of the Church of England were accepted at that time. The ‘giddy and godless college of Gower Street’ now known as University College London, was happy to enroll him as they had a policy of being open to all religions.Lister was rewarded by numerous titles for his work. But his achievements would not have been possible without important discoveries made in the scientific field across Europe, including those of his friend Louis Pasteur
. Both men paid tribute to each other warmly at the seventieth birthday ceremony of the great French chemist at the Sorbonne in 1892. Lister, speaking in French, said Pasteur had raised the veil which had ‘covered infectious maladies for centuries and had demonstrated their microbial nature.’
Park House, Walmer, Kent, where Lister died. Wellcome Images M0006540
Lister was very active even in old age. He was still publishing in The Lancet in 1909, his last contribution being a short piece on catgut ligatures. On the tenth of February 1912 he passed away peacefully at his final place of residence in Walmer, Kent where, on a clear day, Lister would have seen Pasteur’s homeland from his veranda.
Sir Henry Wellcome honoured Lister by housing a reconstruction of his ward from Glasgow Royal Infirmary in the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum. A fitting tribute to a man who made such an improvement to lives across the globe.
Reconstruction of part of the Lister ward at the Wellcome Museum, WA/PHO/Hmm/1. Wellcome Images M0000707
The collections of the Wellcome Library contain a large amount of materials pertaining to Lister’s life and work (as a quick search on our catalogue will testify). In particular, a series of over 24 volumes and nearly 40 files contain notes of Lister’s lectures, personal correspondence and material relating to other members of the Lister family.