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Joseph Lister | Biography | Early Life | Education | Achievement & Legacy

(Last Updated On: November 18, 2021)

Joseph Lister (5 April 1827 – 10 February 1912) in full name also called Sir Joseph Lister, Baronet was a British Surgeon and pioneer to introduce antiseptic surgery, which was helpful to improve the rate of survival through surgery and to reduce the perils of post-operative infections of any kind in the patient.

When Joseph Lister was working at the Glasgow Royal Infirmity he introduced and raised the idea of sterile surgery in the medical field. Joseph Lister effectively introduced the importance of Carbolic Acid (also known as Phenol) which is used as an antiseptic to sterilize the surgical equipment and to clean the wound.

Joseph Lister

Before that, the people generally believed that the chemical which is exposed or contact to bad atmospheric air causes infection in the wound and even at the time of surgery, doctors didn’t wash their hands.

Lister was impressed by the French Chemist Louis Pasteur fermentation idea about micro-organisms. Pasteur’s idea is to claim that tiny microscopic organisms are responsible for the infection rather than bad air.

Lister had thoroughly read the experimental work of Louis Pasture and trying to find the most appropriate method to eliminate these infectious micro-organisms which cause infection in patients.

He believed in the Pasteur theory, which reveals that the infection is caused by a small microorganism. After the considerable experiment, Lister was a pioneer to introduce Carbolic Acid as a disinfectant and antiseptic to kill harmful microorganisms like bacteria.

He cleaned and treated the wound of patients with that chemical and to wash the surgical instruments to reduce the germs infection at the time of surgery.

Within four years, he reduced the 15 percent mortality rate in hospitals. He also introduced that the surgeon would wash their hands with a five percent carbolic acid solution as a disinfectant can decrease the mortality rate.

Lister was so successful to reduce the infection after surgery and ensuring that the surgery is safer and cleaner for the patient without any harmful infection by using antiseptic.

Through this successful surgical methodology, Joseph Lister is often known as the ‘’father of modern surgery and antiseptic medicine’’.

Early Life and Education:

Lister was born on April 5, 1827, at Upton, Essex, England the fourth of their seven children. His mother named Isabella Harris and his father Joseph Jackson Lister was a prosperous Quaker and wine merchant.

His father was also a distinguished microscopist in London who was a pioneer to make the achromatic object lens of the compound microscope and later became fellow on the royal society due to his discovery of the achromatic lens.

At an early age, Lister was a fluent reader of German and French. Subsequently, At a younger age, Lister admitted to a Quaker Academy named Benjamin Abbott Isaac Brown Academy located in Hitchin a market town in Hertfordshire.

After that, Lister went to the Grove house school in Tottenham where he studied natural science, mathematics, and languages.

At that time the educational institutes were not accepted Quakers, but few institutes like University College, London accepted the Quakers. Lister admitted to the University College London, where he studied Botany and achieved a Bachelor of arts degree in 1847.

At the same college, he obtained a Bachelor’s degree in medicine in 1852. After that, at the age of 26, he joined the Royal College of Surgeon. Lister became the friend and assistant of surgeon James Syme to learn surgery at the University of Edinburg, Scotland.

Subsequently, he attended the Royal Medical Society and presented a couple of thesis in 1855 and 1871 which is still in the possession of the Royal Society.

Scientific Career and Contribution:

In the fall of 1853, Lister went to the University of Edinburg, Scotland, and became acquainted with eminent Scottish surgeon James Syme.

Joseph studied surgery under their discipleship and flourished their medical career to enhance their skills about surgery.

During the next year, after gaining their expertise in surgery, he becomes an assistant to their Mentor Syme at the University of Edinburg, Edinburg Royal Infirmity.

After that, in 1856, he appointed as a surgeon at that Royal Infirmity and a few years later, in 1860, he becomes a professor of surgery at the Glasgow Royal Infirmity.

When Joseph was an assistant, he met Syme daughter Agnes and married in the year of 1856.

Agnese was so helpful and invaluable partner because she assisted joseph in every research work either medical research or laboratory experiments until her death in1893. They did not have any children.

During these days, the procedure of surgery was too risky because many patients died after the development of infection in their body even the actual surgery was successful and the exclusive myth prevailed everywhere and people too believed that the wound infection is greatly infected by bad air.

In the year of 1864, Lister thoroughly studied the scientific papers of French Chemist, Louis Pasteur, who presented the concept that micro-organisms are the fundamental cause of fermentation and food spoilage.

He introduced the three scientific methods to remove or eliminate micro-organisms and these basic methods are filtration, exposure to the chemical solution, and exposure to heat.

Lister was interested in Pasteur work to conduct their own experiment to check and confirmed the Pasteur discovery. The central level of Joseph’s experimental work was only around the inflammation and impact to heal the wound.

Subsequently, Lister was inspired to develop the technique of antiseptic for wound and to heal the patient infection.

He published a number of scientific papers regarding blood coagulation, muscle activity in the eye and skin, engorgement of the blood vessel during inflammation.

His research work led to appoint as Professor of Glasgow University in the year 1859. After that, in 1860, he becomes a fellow of the Royal Society.

Meanwhile, He also read about the treatment and purge of sewage through carbolic acid that led to reduced the disease among the cattle grazing on sewage treated fields among the people of Carlisle, England.

With the use of the same chemical, he developed a technique of treating and clean the surgical instruments with the help of carbolic acid.

Lister instructed the surgeons to wash their hands with carbolic acid before and after the surgery and to clean their surgical instrument to prevent any wound.

To follow that instruction, the mortality risk becomes reduced and the patient could prevent any infection.

In the year of 1869, Joseph returned to Edinburg as a successor to his mentor, Professor Syme as a Surgery professor at the University of Edinburg and to continued and improved their work on developing methods of antisepsis and asepsis.

Later on, he migrated from Scotland to Kings College Hospital, London, and in 1877, he was appointed as a professor of Surgery and after that, he was elected as a President of the Clinical Society of London.

After he retired from medicine in 1893, he served as the president of the Royal Society for five years from 1895 to 1890.

Life-Saving Success Through Antiseptic:

In 1865, he applied the carbolic acid solution on the wound of an eleven-year-old boy leg who had injured from a horse cart accident. After six weeks, the boy fracture and wound become healed, and then no infection further developed.

The other nine cases out of eleven were treated with the help of carbolic acid solution without any remarkable infection.

His discovery about that solution was so amazing because in those days the infections were very common and had not any trustworthy procedure to heal the wound before Lister work.

Subsequently, he published a series of six articles with their experimental results in the London weekly medical journal ‘’ The Lancet’’. The outline of these articles was ‘’ Lister method of antiseptic treatment based on the germ theory ‘’.

Later Life:

In the year of 1877, Lister had appointed to the chair of Clinical Surgery at Kings College, London, and to begin their participation in Kings College Hospital.

He continued their research work to improve his antiseptic methods and to develop new methods for the treatment of wounds and injuries.

He introduced and popularized the use of bandages for wound treatment, the development of rubber drainage tubes, and created ligatures made of sterile catgut for the stitching of wounds.

When he proposed their idea about antiseptic, Lister’s peers contradicted their idea and not immediately accepted eventually his idea gained nearly worldwide fame and acceptance.

For his outstanding work in the field of medicine and surgery, Queen Victoria ennobled a Baronet in 1883 and received the title of honor Sir Joseph Lister. After that, in 1902, he awarded the Order of Merit by King Edward VII.


By 1909, when he passed their last days of life, he had become more fragile and lost their ability how to read and write. Joseph died on February 10, 1912, at the age of 84 in his Country home (this home is now known as Coast House) in Walmer, Kent.

After completing their funeral service at Westminster Abbey, his body is buried in London at Hampstead Cemetery and the grave is situated to the southeast of central Church. 

Legacy and Achievements:

In 1890, Lister achieved the Cameron Prize for Therapeutics awarded by the University of Edinburgh. Lister appointed president of the Royal Society for five years between 1895 and 1900.

After his death, the foundation of Lister medal by the memorial fund and this medal is the most prestigious prize and awarded to an eminent Surgeon.

In 1883, Queen Victoria ennobled him the title of Baronet due to their great discoveries.

On 26 June 1902, the Coronation Honours list was published and Lord Lister was allocated as a Privy Counselor and become a member of the New Order of Merit.

On 8 August 1902, he received the Order from King Edward VII, and after that, On 11 August 1902, he declared as a member of the council at Buckingham Palace.

Lister received one of Prussia’s Orders of Merit Pour Le Merite established by King Frederick II of Prussia. He was appointed as a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in the year of 1889.

In September 1965, for the honor of Lister, two Postage Stamps were issued for his pioneering momentous work in antiseptic surgery.

Joseph Lister is one of the two prestigious Surgeons in the United Kingdom (second is John Hunter) who gained the honor of having a public monument in London.

Joseph stands in Portland Place in Marylebone and the other Lister statue is situated in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow.

In 1903, one of the British Institute of Preventive Medicine changed their name with the name of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine in honor of their distinguished Surgeon Joseph Lister.

In 1879, Lister was a pioneer to develop the Listerine antiseptic (which is also known as mouthwash) was coined their name after Lister.

The names of micro-organisms with the name of Lister in his honor, including pathogenic bacterial genus Listeria named by J.H.H Pirie epitomized by the Pathogen Listeria monocytogenes and the other is slime mould genus Listeria which was described by Eduard Wilhelm Jahn in the year 1906.

Lister’s life and their scientific work were depicted by English actor Halliwell Hobbes in the Academy Award Winning 1936 Film, The Story of Louis Pasteur.

Joseph Lister Quick Facts:

Full Name: Joseph Lister

Nationality: British

Also Known as Sir Joseph Lister, Baronet, Baron Lister of Lyme Regis

Famous Work: Father of Modern Surgery (He was a pioneer to implement the antiseptic method in Surgery)

Born on: April 5, 1827, in Upton House, Essex, England

Father Name: Joseph Jackson Lister

Mother Name: Isabella Harris

Spouse: Agnes Syme (1856-1893)

Education: Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery, University College, London

Scientific Publications: On a New Method of Treating Compound Fracture, Abscess, etc. with Observation on the Conditions of Suppuration (1867); On the Antiseptic Principle in the Practice of Surgery (1867); and Illustrations of the Antiseptic System of Treatment in Surgery (1867).

Other Notable Facts: Listerine antiseptic which is also known as Mouthwash and the bacterial genus Listeria named after Joseph Lister.

Chronology of Joseph Lister:

1844: Join the University College, London

1847: Achieved a Bachelor’s Degree

1852: Awarded other Bachelor’s Degree in Medicine and joined Royal College of Surgeons, England

1853: Become assistant to the renowned surgeon James Syme

1856: Appointed as an assistant surgeon at Royal Infirmity

1857: Observation of the blood clotting mechanism

1860: Become a professor of Surgery at the Glasgow Royal Infirmity

1865: First to use carbolic acid for surgical purpose

1867: Published the scientific paper in ”The Lancet” about the system of antiseptic surgery

1869: Appointed as a professor of a clinical study at the University of Edinburg

1877: Appointed as a professor of surgery at Kings’s College, London

1880: Lister was elected to the Royal College of surgeons council

1883: Received a baronetcy

1892: Retired from the post at King’s College, London

1893: Death of Joseph wife ”Agnes Lister”

1895: Elected as a president of Royal Society, London

1912: Died on 10 February at the age of eighty-four

Joseph Lister Quotes:

If a man is not to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to him, what is he to do, or what is he good for?
I am a believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.
The frequency of disastrous consequences in compound fracture, contrasted with the complete immunity from danger to life or limb in simple fracture, is one of the most striking as well as melancholy facts in surgical practice.
But when it has been shown by the researches of Pasteur that the septic property of the atmosphere depended not on the oxygen or any gaseous constituent, but on minute organisms suspended in it, which owed their energy to their vitality, it occurred to me that decomposition in the injured part might be avoided without excluding the air, by applying as dressing some material capable of destroying the life of the floating particles. Upon this principle, I have based a practice.
If we had nothing but pecuniary rewards and worldly honors to look to, our profession would not be one to be desired. But in its practice, you will find it to be attended with peculiar privileges, second to none in intense interest and pure pleasures. It is our proud office to tend the fleshly tabernacle of the immortal spirit, and our path rightly followed, will be guided by unfettered truth and love unfeigned. In the pursuit of this noble and holy calling, I wish you all God-speed.
I trust I may be enabled in the treatment of patients always to act with a single eye to their good.
If the love of surgery is a proof of a person’s being adapted for it, then certainly I am fitted to be a surgeon; for thou can’st hardly conceive what a high degree of enjoyment I am from day to day experiencing in this bloody and butchering department of the healing art. I am more and more delighted with my profession.
Bearing in mind that it is from the vitality of the atmospheric particles, that all the mischief arises, it appears that all that is requisite is to dress the wound with some material capable of killing these septic germs, provided that any substance can be found reliable for this purpose, yet not too potent as a caustic. In the course of the year 1864, I was much struck with an account of the remarkable effects produced by carbolic acid upon the sewage of the town of Carlisle, the admixture of a very small proportion not only preventing all odour from the lands irrigated with the refuse material but, as it was stated, destroying the entozoa which usually infest cattle fed upon such pastures.
In the course of an extended investigation into the nature of inflammation, and the healthy and morbid conditions of the blood in relation to it, I arrived several years ago at the conclusion that the essential cause of suppuration in wounds is decomposition brought about by the influence of the atmosphere upon blood or serum retained within them, and, in the case of contused wounds, upon portions of tissue destroyed by the violence of the injury.


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