Lord Joseph Lister (1827-1912)

Lord Joseph Lister © Lothian Health Services Archives, SCAHMS

This man was a giant amongst medical scientists. Lord Lister pioneered the use of antisepsis and hugely advanced surgical methods, inventing many surgical instruments. He was a dedicated Christian who once said:

I am a believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.

Back in 1860 the Roman Catholic scientist, Louis Pasteur, had demonstrated that life did not spontaneously arise from non-life (a belief held for centuries) and that germs were carried from outside the body. Lister communicated with Pasteur and translated the new ‘germ theory’ to the medical field of surgery. By disinfecting all surgical instruments with carbolic acid and following a rigorous sterilisation process, Lister discovered the way to save the lives of millions. At that time between 50-80% of surgical operations ended in death in Europe because scientists believed that nothing could be done to stop infections that they assumed arose internally.

In 1869 Lister returned to Edinburgh and was appointed Professor of Clinical Surgery. His antiseptic methods spread like wildfire throughout Europe; for example, in Munich the death rate of patients after surgery dropped dramatically from 80% to almost zero! Queen Victoria was so grateful to him that he was made the first Lord in medical history.