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Lister, Joseph, Baron Lister

surgical surgery sepsis air

(1827–1912) British surgeon: introduced antiseptic surgery.

Lister was the son of a Quaker wine merchant who was also a skilful microscopist; his achromatic microscope design (1830) marks the beginning of modern microscopy. As an Arts student in London, young Lister attended as a spectator the first surgical operation under a general anaesthetic, in 1846. He then turned to medicine, qualified as a surgeon in 1852 and worked in Edinburgh, Glasgow and later in London. His main work on antisepsis was done in Glasgow. At that time, surgery was usually followed by inflammation and ‘putrefaction’; of limb amputations about half were fatal from this sepsis, and abdominal surgery was largely avoided because of it. It was widely (but erroneously) thought that sepsis was due to air reaching moist tissues, and awkward but ineffectual attempts had been made to exclude air from surgical sites. The work of in Vienna, in which he showed in 1846 that sepsis after childbirth in hospital could be avoided by cleaning the hands of surgical operators, had been ignored.

In 1865 Lister read work on fermentation. Lister concluded that sepsis was akin to fermentation and was initiated by infectious agents, some air-borne. By 1867 he had shown that antiseptic procedures are very successful; his methods were quickly adopted in Germany (eg in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870) and more slowly in Britain. Lister used crude phenol solution as his preferred antiseptic for dressings and instruments, and as a spray in the air of the operating theatre. Later (from 1887) he gave up the spray and increasingly used aseptic methods, with steam as a sterilizing agent. His work enormously reduced the incidence of fatal post-surgical infection and encouraged surgeons to develop abdominal and bone surgery. Lister’s scientific work was largely related to his ‘antiseptic system’; he published on inflammation, bacteriology (he was probably the first to grow a microorganism in pure culture) and on surgical ligatures and their sterilization (his preference was catgut). He revolutionized general surgery by making it safer and was widely honoured for his work. Early use of Lister’s antiseptic surgical technique: a technician applies a spray of phenol solution to the surgical field in 1883. The surgeon is Sir Alex Ogstone.

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