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Lister: 'father of modern antisepsis'

In the centenary year of Joseph Lister’s death, Dr Ruth Richardson, Centre for Life-Writing Research, revisits his surprising inaugural lecture on blood, milk and fermentation

Lord Lister is world famous for his work proving the feasibility – indeed the necessity – of antiseptic surgery, which has saved countless lives since he developed the idea in the1860s. A century after his death, Lister continues to be a famous figure.

This March King’s celebrated his centenary with a conference and exhibition, ‘Learning from Lister’.

Lister arrived at King’s in the autumn of 1877 as the new Professor of Clinical Surgery. He was 50,and had already had a brilliant career as Regius Professor of Surgery at Glasgow; Clinical Professor of Surgery at Edinburgh and as author of a string of landmark papers in important journals.

There was quite a bit of negotiation before Lister agreed to take up the new post, which the College agreed should be a new additional second chair in Clinical Surgery.

Lister was allowed to bring his own surgical team from Edinburgh,and on his insistence a new fee structure was devised to encourage students’ attendance at lectures.

Called upon to give his inaugural lecture at the opening of the medical session 1877-8, Lister had a great deal to report upon. But, curiously,he chose not to discuss his famous success in using the carbolic spray in surgical operations, his successful manner of treating open wounds and compound fractures, his specially treated ligatures, or his remarkable operative statistics demonstrating impressively high survival rates from complex operations previously regarded as mortal and/or foolhardy. Instead, he decided to speak at length about the processes of fermentation in two vital fluids: blood and milk.

The inaugural lecture was given in the Great Hall at King’s, before an audience of College bigwigs, visitors and students. It looks to have been long – at one point, Lister had to ask students to restrain themselves from showing weariness for the sake of others who were interested in what was going on.

The bench at which he stood must have been crowded with props and apparatus because Lister referred to a number of experiments he had done and showed the results. He also displayed hand-drawn posters of micro-organisms, still in the Royal College of Surgeons archives.

Lister had planned his talk with great care. His reasons for selecting the topic for this most important lecture are not at first obvious to a modern audience, just as they probably were not to his audience in the Great Hall in 1877.

But for Lister, an understanding of the biological basis of fermentation was the key to recognising how to prevent the post operative infections which killed so many patients after successful surgery, and so many mothers after childbirth.

Lister demonstrated that uncontaminated fresh blood (if collected into sterile containers so carefully that it was not exposed to aerial dust) could remain unputrefied for weeks.

He went on to demonstrate the same for milk, showing that he had isolated the bacterium which causes milk to sour and congeal. He shared his own microscopic knowledge of this microorganism,and showed how small it was compared to the yeast organism Louis Pasteur had recently shown to be the cause of the fermentation of wine.

Lister demonstrated the potency of the milk bacterium, one of the very first micro-organisms to be isolated and cultivated, and named it:bacterium lactis. His talk was received with loud applause.

The lecture was clever, timely,and well-thought out: designed to shape a frame of mind receptive to the ‘germ-theory’ of disease causation among his new colleagues and King’s students, by encouraging them all to contemplate a substance they consumed daily in their tea: ubiquitous, but overlooked,and teeming with bacteria.

A tablet outside the College Chapel commemorates Lord Lister.

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