Bruce Kauffmann: Joseph Lister and his life-saving discovery

Bruce Kauffmann: Joseph Lister and his life-saving discovery

Joseph Lister, who was born last week (April 5) in 1827, was an amazing physician but a poor salesman. In 1867, this unknown British doctor, having read an article on microorganisms by the French chemist Louis Pasteur, concluded that the same microorganisms — we call them germs today — caused infections in wounds.

Those infections turned otherwise nonlethal wounds into killers, and it did the same thing to supposedly lifesaving surgical procedures. That is because, Lister believed, these infectious germs were not only in the patients' wounds, but abounded in the unsanitary surgical procedures — the bloody gowns, dirty scalpels, unclean towels and dressings — that were part of every surgery in every hospital in Europe.

And so Lister began experimenting with surgical procedures in which his operating rooms, his surgical clothing, and especially his surgical instruments, were "sterilized" through what he called "antisepsis."

First, if they weren't already brand new, all surgical outfits, bed sheets, patients' gowns, towels and washcloths were to be thoroughly washed.

Second, surgical instruments, all dressings, and even the patient's wounds were to be swabbed with carbolic acid, which Lister had discovered destroyed germs and prevented infections.

As a result, fatalities among Lister's patients plummeted, but the reaction among his medical colleagues in Europe ranged from skepticism to disbelief, and even though Lister authored paper after paper and gave speech after speech defending his work, he gained few converts. It was only after many years of undeniable success that Lister's work grudgingly gained acceptance among the European medical community.

At that point, in 1876, Lister was ready to share his findings with the American medical community, and as it happened, in 1876 the 100-year-old America was hosting its Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, in which one whole section of the exhibition, the Medical Congress, was devoted entirely to the latest medical breakthroughs and procedures.

Once again, Lister's advocacy for his "antiseptic surgery" was greeted with skepticism and disbelief. In a three-hour speech at the Medical Congress Lister defended his work, explained its miraculous effects and touted his success rate in saving lives, but his audience of America's most famous doctors was not impressed. "Too much trouble," was the common response. "Open-air treatment," in which wounds were cured by the air, or "warm water dressings" placed on wounds, were the much-preferred American treatments.

As a result, tens of thousands of American patients, who otherwise would have been spared, died of infections. It was many years later before American doctors finally got on board.

In that sense, Joseph Lister was the Rodney Dangerfield of the medical community — he got no respect. And even today, what common "medicine" bears Lister's name? An antiseptic mouthwash, Listerine. From preventing death to preventing bad breath.

Bruce Kauffmann's email address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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