Monday, August 08, 2005

Lister – his bitter battle against bacteria

Following the discovery of anaesthetics, one thing remained terribly wrong with surgery. Around 50% of post-operative wounds became infected; in a few days patients died after the whole blood stream became poisoned. Even the simplest operations, such as lancing an abscess could prove fatal. It did not matter how skilful the surgeon, if infection took hold, the patient died.

In a Glasgow hospital, a brilliant young surgeon named Joseph Lister dedicated his life to fighting this evil. Lister was the son of a Quaker family, an earnest, unassuming and deeply religious man, uninterested in social success or financial reward. Lister did not accept the school of thought that wounds became infected by some mystery gas in the air. He suspected that minute organisms entered wounds. As a meticulous researcher and surgeon, he recognized the relationship between Pasteur's research and his own. He considered that microbes were the likely cause of the wound putrefaction and they had to be destroyed before they entered the wound.

Lister introduced carbolic, a by-product of coal-tar, into the hospital wards and operating room. He dipped his instruments in it; swabs and bandages were rinsed in it. He even sprayed the air around with a fine mist of carbolic while he performed his operations. Using this new technique he found that even terrible fractures and gaping wounds, which inevitably would have become septic under the old treatment, healed in wards under his control.

Lister’s techniques have since evolved into the aseptic techniques of modern surgery with sterilised overalls, caps, masks and rubber gloves; sterilised instruments, operating tables, and theatres. He fought and won against both the bacteria and the prejudices of the times to introduce the vital aseptic advancements.

Quotations from Joseph Lister (1827-1912):

“A scientist’s life is his work.”

“A feeling heart is the first requisite of a surgeon.”

“It is the main object of my life to find out how to procure such a result in all wounds.”