Dr. Joseph Lister and the use of Carbolic Acid as Disinfectant

Joseph Lister

Dr. Joseph Lister (1827-1912)

On August 12, 1865British surgeon Dr. Joseph Lister became the first surgeon to perform an antiseptic operation by liberal use of carbolic acid (phenol) as a disinfectant. Using phenol to sterilise surgical instruments and to clean wounds led to a reduction in post-operative infections and made surgery safer for patients.

Joseph Lister was born on April 5, 1827 in Upton, Essex, England. He attended Quaker Schools with a great emphasis on sciences which gave him a good foundation for his later profession. Lister attended the University of London and earned his degrees in Medicine and Surgery. Lister’s talent was discovered early and he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1852.

It is believed that Lister has been aware of the fact that the large number of deaths after surgery did not come from the procedure itself. He started searching for the issue and compared patients and their wounds, e.g. patients with and without flesh wounds. Lister began to wash his hands before surgery as also suggested by Ignaz Semmelweis [6] and tried not to walk around with the patients’ blood on his clothes as many surgeons did this to show their status. The surgeon also started to read about Louis Pasteur’s [7] work on pasteurization principles and agreed with the French scientist that germs are often contracted from the air and that in order to prevent an infection, germs had to be killed before they could enter the wound.

As carbolic acid was used as an effective disinfectant for sewers, Lister wanted to find out whether it was also safe to be used on human flesh. Lister began using carbolic acid to clean his hands and the surgery instruments. Also, Lister covered his patients’ wounds with a piece of lint covered in carbolic acid and build a machine that sprayed the air with carbolic acid to get rid of airborne germs. When the surgeon was sure that his method worked, he published his findings in the scientific magazineThe Lancet‘ in a series of 6 articles, running from March through July 1867.

Unfortunately, it took some time until surgeons got used to Lister’s methods. Often, they were tired of having to go through the sterilization procedure before surgery or they did it incorrectly and did not achieve the expected results. It is believed that the method was soon widely used in Germany, especially Munich and after Lister was appointed Professor of Surgery in London’s King’s College Hospital in 1877English doctors could also be convinced.

In 1856 Lister married the daughter of surgeon James Syme, Agnes Syme. After the death of his wife in 1892, on a holiday in Italy, he withdrew from practice, but still advised now and then, for example during the appendectomy of King Edward VII shortly before his coronation in 1901. Lister died on 10 February 1912. On the hundredth anniversary of his death, in 2012, Lister was considered by most in the medical field as “The Father of Modern Surgery”

At yovisto academic video search, you may enjoy a video lecture on the Germ Theory of Disease by Yale Professor Frank Snowden.

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