November 17, 2017

A group of surgeons using Lister’s carbolic spray, circa 1882. Credit: Wellcome Collection

For most of 1800s, surgery was disgusting, filthy, and unsafe. Hospitals were places people desperately tried to avoid, and operations didn’t always result in a clean bill of health. You might even get your testicles accidentally sawed off during a leg amputation. But this all changed with Joseph Lister, who transformed the way that doctors approach surgeries. We talked to Lindsey Fitzharris, author of “The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine” about how this shift happened.

Three Takeaways 

  • Hospitals weren’t very clean before Joseph Lister came along. “In 1825, a patient had wriggling maggots and mushrooms growing in the damp soiled sheets of his hospital bed,” Fitzharris says. “And what’s crazy is that he didn’t even feel the need to complain about this.”
  • After Louis Pasteur introduced germ theory, Lister recognized that cleanliness and sterilization were vitally important for patient survival. This was a departure from the status quo, when the most famous surgeon of his day would hold his surgical tools in his mouth as he switched instruments.
  • Lister’s ideas were met with stiff resistance, and it took a while for them to catch on. The way Lister ultimately triumphed was by teaching young doctors, who would go out into the world and spread his message.

More reading 

  • Listerine actually takes its name from Joseph Lister. The Smithsonian Magazine looks at the history of the famous mouthwash.
  • If you’d like to read more about Robert Liston, the surgeon who accidentally sawed off his patient’s testicles, here’s an Atlantic article about him.
  • Lindsey Fitzharris also has a YouTube series in which she explores the grisly and strange history of medicine. Her episode on reusable condoms is an interesting watch.

germs, innovation hub, pri, WGBH, Lindsey Fitzharris, Surgery, Joseph Lister, Bacteria, Kara Miller

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