"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.”
Joseph Lister, the “father of modern surgery,” introduced the idea of sterile surgery. Lister showed that infections are caused by germs. He discovered that using carbolic acid kills germs without damaging human tissue. This then became the most widely used antiseptic around the world to clean wounds and sterilize instruments during surgery.
Lister’s discovery was crucial in making surgery much safer for patients and greatly reducing post-operation infections. At the time, many believed that chemical damage from bad air was the cause of infection. Concerns for bacterial infections were non-existent. In fact, surgeons did not even wash their hands before operations. More than half of all patients died from infection after they were operated on due to germs from unsanitary conditions.
Lister’s work was inspired by the research of Louis Pasteur on micro-organisms and food spoilage. Lister tested Pasteur’s findings and through experimentation, he used his own research to create antiseptic techniques for wounds. When Lister began to experiment with carbolic acid, Lister found incredible results. He first tested it on instruments and then on a young boy’s wound in the Glasgow Infirmary. Lister discovered the boy had no infections after a few days, and after six weeks, the child’s bones were fused back together. Lister published his findings and advised surgeons to wear gloves and to begin washing their hands and instruments in a carbolic acid solution.
Although Lister’s antiseptic method is no longer used in modern surgeries, his principle that bacteria must be prevented from entering operation wounds is still the basis of surgery today.
CENTERED ON CHRIST
Lister grew up in a Quaker Christian household. He never abandoned his faith in God. He was known to be a shy, gentle, and humble Christian who believed God directed his work. He once stated, “If we had nothing but pecuniary rewards and worldly honours 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.”
The surgeon Joseph Lister in 1902
Joseph Lister as a young man, 1855
Carbolic steam spray apparatus
Lister's carbolic steam spray apparatus, Hunterian Museum, Glasgow Image: Stephendickson, CC by SA 4.0