April 5, 1827, marks the birth of Joseph Lister, the man whose work furthered our knowledge of disease and infection.
Born in Upton, England, Joseph Lister attended London and Edinburgh Universities, accepting a position at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary after graduation.
Lister began a study of surgical wounds, noting the very high incidence of infection after surgery. At the time, postoperative sepsis infection accounted for the death of almost half of the patients undergoing major surgery. A common report by surgeons was: “Operation successful, but the patient died.”
In Lister’s attempts to reduce bacteria, he sprayed carbolic acid on surgical instruments, wounds and surgical dressings. At a British Medical Association meeting, in 1867, Lister was able to announce that his wards at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary had remained clear of sepsis for nine months.
Although his ideas were met with resistance, opinion gradually changed, thanks in part to an operation he performed in 1877. While Chair of the Clinical Surgery at King’s College, Lister carried out the wiring of a fractured kneecap—an operation frequently causing generalized infection and death. For the first time, Lister performed the operation under antiseptic conditions. News of his success helped changed surgical opinion throughout the world.