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Article dated : Mon, 18th February 2002

Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister was regarded as England's greatest surgeon. He was the founder of the antiseptic principal and due to his work internal surgical operations were made possible.

In the early 19th century post operation infection (called "hospital disease" but now known as "operative sepsis" ) accounted for the death of at least 50% of patients undergoing major surgery. Often the operation was a success but the patient died from infection.

In 1865 Louis Pasteur had suggested that decay was caused by living organisms or germs in the air. Lister found that this confirmed his own theories on the cause of "hospital disease" and he began to experiment using carbolic acid to clean and dress wounds. Carbolic acid had recently been used to treat sewage and Lister therefore thought that it would kill the germs in the air. In 1867 he was able to announce that his ward had been free of infection for nine months.

As if often the case, Lister's findings were met by hostility and indifference, and although his antiseptic methods were used very successfully in Germany in 1870 to treat casualties from the Franco-Prussian, it was not until 1877, following a successful operation he conducted at Kings College, London on a young boy who had been run over by a cart, that his antiseptic principal was finally accepted.

Lister also went further by inventing a carbolic spray that could be used to disinfect the operating theatre, requiring that his operating staff wore clean clothes, and that instruments were regularly disinfected.

Lister was made a baronet in 1883, created Baron Lister of Lyme Regis in 1897, and became one of the first 12 members of the Order of Merit in 1902.

He died aged 84 at Walmer in Kent on 10 February 1912.