Joseph Lister Biography

Joseph Lister was a British surgeon, experimental pathologist, medical scientist, founder of aseptic surgery, and pioneer of preventative medicine. Lister revolutionized the method of surgery. Joseph Lister was not an exceptional surgeon, but his research on bacteriology and infections raised his operative technique, and his observations, deductions, and experimentations changed surgery methods throughout the world.

Joseph introduced the method of antiseptic surgery and wound care while working as a surgeon at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. He introduced phenol to sterilize sutures, patients’ skin, surgical instruments, surgeons’ hands, and wards. Lister researched the role of inflammation and tissue perfusion on wound healing. Joseph was considered the father of modern surgery because his contribution in surgical procedures led to the reduction in postoperative infections. Joseph introduced smart strategies to increase the chance of survival after surgery. Joseph Lister’s contributions paved the way for safer surgical procedures.  His introduction of the antiseptic surgical process dramatically reduced deaths from child delivery and surgery and changed the way the medical industry concept at sanitation and proper hygiene.

Birth5 April 1827
Birth NameJoseph Lister
Birth PlaceUpton House, West Ham, England
EducationUniversity College London
Famous ForSurgical Sterile Techniques
SpouseAgnes Syme
Death10 February 1912
Resting PlaceHampstead Cemetry, London

Early Life:

Joseph Lister was born on April 5, 1827, in Upton House, West Ham, London, in an educated and prosperous family of Quakers. His father, Joseph Jackson Lister, was a wine merchant and amateur scientist; his mother, Isabelle Lister Nee Harris, was a school assistant. His parents married on 14 July 1818 in West Yorkshire. Lister’s father discovered the modern achromatic microscope, which also played a role in Dr. Lister’s instruction in natural history and his use of the microscope at a young age.



As a child, Lister stuttered, so he was educated at home until he was eleven. Lister was then enrolled in  Benjamin Abbott’s Isaac Brown Academy, a private Quaker school in Hertfordshire. When he was thirteen, Joseph attended a private Quaker School, Grove High School in Tottenham, 

to study languages, mathematics, and natural sciences.

Lister’s father had a significant influence on his life, especially by encouraging him to study natural sciences. His father has a great interest in microscopical sciences research, and this became a reason for Lister to become a surgeon. Lister was the one to join the medical profession in his family, and later it was described as his spontaneous decision. Liste left the school in the spring of 1843 when he was seventeen.


In 1843, Lister’s father decided to send Joseph Lister to university, and he decided to go to University College London Medical School. In 1844 and 1845, Lister continued his pre-matriculate studies in Greek, Philosophy, and Natural History. Lister completed matriculation in 1845 and then enrolled for a Bachelor of Arts. In December 1847, Lister graduated with a Bachelor of Arts 1st division degree, with a distinction in classics and botany.

Medical Education:

Joseph was registered as a medical student in the winter of 1849. During his studies, Lister was an active member of the Hospital Medical Society and the University Debating Society. In the autumn of 1849, his father gifted him a microscope. After completing physiology, anatomy, and surgery courses, Lister was awarded by Certificate of Honour. He won a silver medal in anatomy and physiology and a gold medal in botany. As a  medical student, Joesph was greatly inspired by Dr. Sharpey’s lectures, which provoked a love of experimental physiology and histology.

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Clinical Studies:

Before Lister qualified for his degree, he had to complete two years of clinical instruction and started his residency at  University Hospital in October 1850. He started as an intern and then house physician to Walter Hayle Walshe, the professor of pathological anatomy and author of an 1846 article, The Nature and Treatment of Cancer.

Lister’s First Surgery:

 On 27 June 1851, Lister, a second-year medical student working at a casualty ward in Gower Street, conducted his first surgery on Julia Sullivan’s intestine. After clearing the intestines with Blood-warm water, Lister could not place them back into the body, so he extended the cut. Then he put the intestine back in the body, and the woman recovered.

Microscopic Experiments:

Lister wrote his first paper, Quarterly Journal Of Microscopical Science, published in 1853.  Lister was presented with a piece of a fresh human eye’s iris by Wharton Jones at the University College Hospital on 11 August 1852. He could not complete his research with total satisfaction.

His following paper was an investigation on goosebumps that was published in the same journal on 1 June 1853. Lister was able to conclude Kölliker’s experimental studies that in humans, the smooth fibers are responsible for making the hair stand out from the skin in contrast to other mammals in which large tactile hairs are associated with striated musclesLister demonstrated a new method of creating histological sections from the tissue of the scalp.

Joseph Lister Invention:

In March 1865, Lister began his first experiment with carbolic acid on a 22-year-old patient, Neil Kelly, who had suffered a severe compound fracture of the leg. His treatment consisted of cleaning the wound of all blood clots and then applying the undiluted carbolic acid using forceps across the whole wound.  Lister placed a piece of lint soaked in the carbolic acid on the leg,  covering the injury and fixed with an adhesive plaster. A thin block tin or sheet lead was placed to cover the lint to prevent the antiseptic from evaporating. But it was a failure and led to the patient’s death.

On 12 August 1865, Lister succeeded for the first time when he used full-strength carbolic acid to disinfect a compound fracture. He applied a piece of lint dipped in carbolic acid solution onto the wound of an 11-year-old boy, James Greenlees, who had sustained a compound fracture after a cartwheel had passed over his left leg. After four days, he changed the pad and discovered that the wound had developed no infection, and after a total of six weeks, he was surprised to find out that the boy’s bones had fused back together. He published his results in The Lancet in six articles from March through July 1867.

Lister instructed surgeons under his responsibility to wear clean gloves and wash their hands before and after operations with five percent carbolic acid solutions. Surgical Instruments were also sterilized in the same solution, and assistants also sprayed the solution in the operation theatre. One of his additional suggestions was to stop using porous natural materials in manufacturing the handles of medical instruments. The concept of the antiseptic method revolutionized surgery. Joseph Lister found a way to prevent wound infection during and after surgery. He was the first to apply the concept of Germ Theory to surgery. Lister’s Antisepsis System is the basis of today’s infection control. His principles made surgery safe and continue to save countless lives.

Joseph Lister Discovery:

Joseph Lister discovery can be summarised as his realization of the connection between microorganisms and infection in surgical wounds. In the mid-19th century, Lister observed that post-operative infections were caused by bacteria in the environment and on surgical instruments. This insight led him to develop the concept of antiseptic surgery.

Lister’s fundamental discovery was that by using antiseptics to sterilize surgical instruments, dressings, and the surgical field, the risk of infection could be significantly reduced. He experimented with various substances and eventually found success with carbolic acid (phenol). Lister introduced the technique of spraying carbolic acid in the operating room, effectively killing bacteria and preventing the spread of germs.

This discovery revolutionized surgical practices by transforming the approach to infection prevention. Lister’s work laid the foundation for modern antiseptic and aseptic techniques, making surgery safer and significantly reducing post-operative complications and mortality rates. His findings had a profound impact on the field of medicine and paved the way for further advancements in surgical hygiene.

Contribution To Microbiology:

Lister’s contribution to microbiology was significant. His use of antiseptic techniques helped establish the connection between microorganisms and infection. By reducing the presence of bacteria during surgery, Lister demonstrated the role of microorganisms in causing post-operative complications.

Contribution to Medicine:

Lister’s contribution to medicine was transformative. His antiseptic techniques not only revolutionized surgical practices but also had a profound impact on public health. His methods led to a significant decrease in mortality rates and paved the way for safer surgical procedures.

Personal Life:

Agnes Syme met Joseph Lister in Glasgow while he was studying to be a surgeon and working as her father’s assistant. Lister converted to the Scottish Episcopal Church to marry Agnes, as she was not raised as a Quaker. They married on the 23rd of April 1856 in Milbank, Scotland. On their honeymoon, the couple spent a month at Upton and the Lake District, and then they did  a three months tour of the leading medical institutes in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.

Interesting Facts About Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister Achievements:

Joseph Lister’s achievements are numerous and have had a lasting impact on the field of medicine. Here are some of his notable accomplishments:

Development Of Antiseptic Surgery:

Lister’s most significant achievement was the development of antiseptic surgery. By introducing the use of antiseptics, particularly carbolic acid (phenol), he revolutionized surgical practices and significantly reduced the risk of post-operative infections.

Reduction In Infection Rates:

Lister’s antiseptic techniques led to a dramatic reduction in infection rates following surgical procedures. Prior to his work, infections were common and often fatal. Lister’s methods, such as sterilizing instruments and disinfecting the surgical environment, resulted in a substantial decrease in infections and improved patient outcomes.

Advancement Of Surgical Hygiene:

Lister’s emphasis on cleanliness and aseptic techniques laid the foundation for modern surgical hygiene practices. His work prompted surgeons to adopt practices such as handwashing, sterilization of instruments, and wearing surgical masks to minimize the spread of germs.

Promotion Of Scientific Approach:

Lister’s work promoted the importance of scientific research and evidence-based medicine in surgical practices. He meticulously documented his experiments, observed outcomes, and refined his techniques based on empirical evidence, setting a precedent for surgical innovation and improvement.

Influence On Public Health:

Lister’s achievements had a broader impact on public health beyond the realm of surgery. By reducing the incidence of infections and improving surgical outcomes, he contributed to the overall well-being of patients and advanced the understanding of disease prevention.

Other Achievements:

Joseph Lister was the surgeon of Queen for many years and introduced the use of rubber drainage tubes after experimenting with them on her. He also showed that sterilized materials could be placed inside a patient’s body as needed and used and left sterilized silver wire inside the body to hold broken bones together. And since then, the silk thread used in internal stitching caused more damage when pulled out after some time. Joesph started using sterilized catgut, as this would eventually dissolve in the body. Queen Victoria dubbed him Sir Joseph Lister in 1883. He became Lord Lister of Lyme Regis in 1897 and was the first to become a British peer for his services to medicine.

Lister was awarded the Order of Merit in 1902 and made Privy Councilor. He became the Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons and President of the Royal Society. He was also President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He helped establish the British Institute of Preventative Medicine in 1891, renamed The Lister Institute in his honor.


Joseph Lister died on 10 February 1912 at his country home at the age of 84.  Lister’s body was then buried in a plot in the southeast corner of the central chapel, attended by a small group of his family and friends. Many tributes from learned societies all over the world were published in The Times. Glasgow University held a memorial service for Joseph in Bute Hall on 15 February 1912.


Joseph Lister pioneered the concept of antiseptic surgery, developing techniques to prevent infection during surgical procedures.

Joseph Lister lived in various locations throughout his life, including London, Scotland, and eventually settling in Walmer, Kent, England.

Joseph Lister died of natural causes at the age of 84 in Walmer, Kent, England.

Lister tested his ideas by implementing antiseptic techniques in surgical procedures and meticulously documenting the reduction in infection rates and patient outcomes. He conducted experiments, made observations, and refined his techniques based on empirical evidence.

Joseph Lister is often referred to as the “Father of Antiseptic Surgery” for his pioneering work in the field.

Joseph Lister’s contribution to microbiology lies in his establishment of the link between microorganisms and infections, particularly in surgical settings. By introducing antiseptic techniques, he demonstrated the importance of controlling bacteria to prevent post-operative complications.

Joseph Lister discovered antiseptic practices through his study of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory. He applied the principles of germ theory to surgery and experimented with different antiseptic substances until he found success with carbolic acid (phenol).

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