Today In Fact, 5 April

Millions of people can be grateful for the birth today of Joseph Lister in 1824. Joseph was born in Essex to a Middle Class Quaker family and went to good Quaker schools where he learned to love mathematics, natural sciences and languages. In particular Joseph learned French and German.

Joseph attended the newly formed University College, London as it was one of the few Universities that would accept Quakers. He studied botany and later registered to study medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons. Upon finishing his studies, Joseph became the assistant to James Syme and moved with him to Edinburgh. At this time, Joseph left the Quakers and joined the Scottish Episcopal Church and, it would seem also became a Freemason. He also fell in love and married Syme’s daughter, Agnes who became his laboratory assistant.

Now surgery in those days was foul and bitter practice. Anaesthesia was largely unknown and the germ theory of disease was still undiscovered. It was thought that wounds were made septic because of “miasma”, a noxious form of “bad air”. To counter miasma, hospital wards were aired at midday to allow fresh air in and the miasma out. No-one considered that micro-organisms or germs might be causing infections. That was until Joseph Lister read an article in French written in 1865 by Louis Pasteur showing that rotting and fermentation could occur under anaerobic conditions if micro-organisms were present.

This got Joseph, who by now was professor of surgery at Glasgow University, to do some experiments with carbolic acid, a derivative of creosote (the stuff we treat wood poles with to stop them rotting). After some experiments he became convinced that cleanliness was vital to successful surgery. He instructed surgeons under his responsibility to wear clean gloves and wash their hands before and after operations with 5% carbolic acid solutions. Instruments were also washed in the same solution and assistants sprayed the solution in the operating theatre. The effects were dramatic. People started surviving surgery in much larger numbers and the incidents of infections lessened.

He was knighted and made a Baron for his discoveries and lived a long life despite suffering a stroke and mourning the death of his wife, Agnes. So next time you wash your mouth out with Listerine, recall Joseph Lister and be sure to gargle loudly in his honour.

– Doug Racionzer (see the full collection at