Joseph Lister is best known as the originator of the antiseptic technique in surgery. In its earliest form this involved suspending a blanket soaked in carbolic acid over the operating table. Later a carbolic spray was used. The purpose was to ensure that all germs in the vicinity of the patient, surgical staff and instruments were destroyed. By dramatically reducing infections due to germs entering surgical wounds, Lister made possible the development of brain and spinal surgery. As the new technique required highly skilled nurses, it also represented an important milestone in the development of nursing.
Lister was born into a wealthy Quaker family in April 1827, in Essex. He received his medical education at University College London. He first came north to Edinburgh in 1853 where he worked as assistant to Professor Syme. Lister also married Syme's daughter, Agnes. The newly-weds moved to Glasgow in 1860 when he became Professor of Surgery there. During their time in Glasgow, Joseph left the Quakers and joined the Episcopalian Church to which his wife belonged. His work on antisepsis was undertaken at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
In 1869 the Listers returned to Edinburgh where Joseph had been appointed to follow his father-in-law as Professor of Surgery. Later he moved back to London, to a professorship at King's College. In 1897 he became the first doctor to serve in the House of Lords. He was an outspoken opponent of women becoming doctors, but had no opportunity to speak on this topic in Parliament as the reforms admitting women to medical education had already been passed. He died in February 1912, after prolonged illnesses.
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