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Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister

  • Alumni

Professor of Clinical Surgery


Joseph Lister (1827-1912) was Professor of Clinical Surgery at King’s College London from 1877 to 1893. He is considered ‘the father of modern surgery’ having saved countless lives through the introduction of his antiseptic system.

Joseph was born into a Quaker family in Essex, England. His father, Joseph Jackson Lister, was a tobacconist who was interested in optics. He played an important role improving the performance of microscopes.

Joseph studied Medicine at UCL and worked at Glasgow University before coming to work at King’s. Whilst in Glasgow he met and married Agnes Syme, who would also become his partner in the laboratory.

His major breakthrough came from reading the work of Louis Pasteur, who showed food spoilage was caused by micro-organisms. Joseph decided to apply Louis’ findings to the development of antiseptic techniques for wounds. From 1865, he began spraying carbolic acid on equipment before operating on patients. As surgeons began to adopt similar practices deaths from infection dropped rapidly.

Joseph’s work saw him celebrated in his lifetime and he was awarded the Royal Medal (1880), the Albert Medal (1984) and the Copley Medal (1902). He was also president of the Royal Society between 1895 and 1900.

He was also honoured by royalty a number of times. In 1883 Queen Victoria made him a Baronet and in 1897 she further honoured him with a full peerage. King Edward VII suffered appendicitis two days before his scheduled coronation. He sought Joseph’s advice on having an appendectomy carried out safely and credited him for saving his life. He honoured him by appointing him to the Privy Council and making him one of the original members of the Order of Merit, an exclusive honour that is in the gift of the sovereign.

Following his death, a memorial fund led to the founding of the Lister Medal, seen as the most prestigious prize that could be awarded to a surgeon.

Did you know? Listerine anti-bacterial mouthwash is named after Lister, as its inventor Joseph Lawrence was an admirer of the surgeon's work.