Sir Joseph Lister was the pioneer of antiseptic surgery. Read on to learn more about Joseph Lister’s profile, childhood, life and timeline in this biography.

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Famous as
Surgeon and Scientist
Born on
05 April 1827 AD    Famous 5th April Birthdays
Zodiac Sign
Aries    Aries Men
Born in
West Ham
Died on
10 February 1912 AD
place of death
Joseph Jackson Lister
Isabella Harris
Agnes Syme
University of London
University College London
1902 - Copley Medal
Joseph Lister
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Joseph Lister is a renowned English surgeon who discovered antiseptic surgery. He is distinguished as the ‘Father of Modern Surgery’ for his contribution to sterile surgery that led to the safety of patients who underwent complex surgeries. He developed the principles of cleanliness that changed the face of medicine and surgical practice forever. Joseph Lister is also known as the founder of antiseptic medicine and the inventor of preventive medicine. He was a religious man who strongly believed in God, religious principles and Christianity. He belonged to the Quaker homes in Upton and received education from various prestigious schools and universities. Later in life, he received various designations and honors and also served as a personal surgeon to Queen Victoria. Joseph Lister’s breakthrough in antiseptic surgery saved millions of lives and also paved way to the advancement of modern surgical procedures. Read this biography to know more about Sir Joseph Lister and his contributions to medical science.

Childhood And Early Life
Born on April 5, 1827, Joseph Lister was the second of the three children born to a rich wine merchant, amateur scientist and the inventor of the achromatic double lens and compound microscope, called Joseph Jackson Lister. Lister’s father was also a member of the ‘Fellow of the Royal Society’. His mother was Isabella Harris. Lister belonged to one of the prosperous Quaker homes in Upton. Young Lister received education from prestigious Quaker schools in London and Hertfordshire. These schools were prominent and well-known for the importance given to science subjects. The Lister family led a simple and quite life, although they were wealthy.
Education And Career
After Joseph Lister completed his schooling, he attended the University of London in 1844, where he obtained the Bachelor of Arts Degree. From a young age, Lister had a keen interest in surgery. He graduated with honors in Bachelor of Medicine from London and in 1852, he became a fellow member of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Lister also became an assistant to the greatest surgical teacher of that time called James Syme in 1853. He began his surgical career as a resident house surgeon in 1854 in Edinburgh. It was not until 1861, at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow, where he became a full-time professor in the field of surgery. In 1877, Lister was employed as the professor of the department of surgery at Kings College, London. After retiring in 1893, he became the foreign secretary of the ‘Royal Society’. Later on he served as the president of the ‘Royal Society’ from the years 1895 to 1900. He also became the president of the ‘British Association for the Advancement of Science’ in 1896.
Lister’s Research
As a student, Lister not only practiced medicine but also conducted several researches on the subject. His initial researches were based on muscle actions in the eye and skin, the coagulation of blood, and the observations on blood vessels during early phases of infections. He presented his dissertation, titled ‘On the Minute Structure of Involuntary Muscular Fiber’, to the ‘Royal Society’. His paper was recognized and he was honored with the designation of ‘Fellow of the Royal Society’ in 1860.
Lister’s Prevention Of Infection
While he was a surgeon at Edinburgh Hospital, he observed that several patients, who had undergone surgery, had died from unattended infections. A high death rate due to surgical infection was prominent all over Europe and disturbed him greatly. During those times, many surgeons were trained to believe that infections arose from within the wounds itself. They never washed their hands or changed their blood-stained clothes as this was considered a status symbol and the mark of a true surgeon. Lister did not accept this. He conducted numerous researches and spent many years researching on how dangerous infections could be stopped. He followed strictly sterile procedures by washing his hands after every surgery and wearing clean clothes. This approach, although scoffed at by many, led to lesser death rates from infections among patients at various hospitals.
Lister’s Discovery Of The Antiseptic

Joseph Lister was familiar with wine fermentation and on reading Louis Pasteur’s research papers, he realized that germs were air-borne and could also affect non-living matter, like wine, to go bad. This also proved Lister’s argument that infections did not begin from within the wound. This observation made it possible for Lister to believe that infections could be eliminated by restricting air-borne germs from contaminating the wound. Although Pasteur had used filters and heat to destroy germs in the wine, this method was not applicable for human flesh. On learning that carbolic acid or phenol was used as a disinfectant in the sewers to kill parasites, Lister began to think hard. Later, he learned that these were safe to be used on skin. He began to use carbolic acid to clean his hands, instruments, and bandages before, during and after surgery. The bandages were also soaked in carbolic acid before covering the wounds.

In 1869, Lister invented a new technique, by filling a pump spray with carbolic acid to be used in the operation theatres. Lister’s chemical antiseptic proved beneficial to kill germs and soon several hospitals adopted this antiseptic surgical practice, which saved countless lives. After demonstrating his successful antiseptic techniques in various London hospitals, this procedure was accepted worldwide. 

Lister’s Surgical Techniques
Lister proved that materials that were sterilized could be left inside a patient’s body. Using a sterilized silver wire, he tied broken bones that healed safely. He also adopted the usage of sterilized catgut for internal stitches that dissolved after the scars/wounds healed.
Recognition And Awards
Joseph Lister was given much recognition for his great contribution to medicine. Although initially his work on antiseptics was met with skepticism, his approach became widely accepted all over. It was only due to his work and research that helped reduce 15% surgical mortality rate by 1860. After being appointed as Queen Victoria’s personal surgeon for many years, he was knighted as Sir Joseph Lister in 1883. He was titled Lord Lister of Lyme Regis in 1897. He also became the first British peer for services to medicine. It was in 1902 when he was made the Privy councilor and was given the ‘Order of Merit’. He was also the founding member of the ‘British Institute of Preventive Medicine’.
Personal Life
Joseph Lister married James Syme’s eldest daughter, Agnes Syme. They were childless, but his wife supported him throughout Lister’s professional career. After his wife died in 1892, Lister turned towards religion and regularly attended the ‘Scottish Episcopal Church’.
Death And Legacy
On February 10, 1912, Lister died at Walmer, Kent, England. After a long career in medicine, he retired in 1893. His principles in antiseptic surgery became universally accepted and it led to the development of various other researches. His antiseptic techniques laid the foundation for modern surgery. The ‘Listerine’ mouthwash was named after him, in his honor, in 1879. Lister was buried at Hampstead Cemetery, Fortune Green, London.



Joseph Lister was born on April 5, 1827.


He was awarded the ‘Bachelor of Medicine’ (MB) from the University of London. He was also awarded the Fellowship of the ‘Royal College of Surgeons’ the same year.


 He became an assistant to James Syme.


He served as a resident house surgeon in Edinburgh.


He was elected Fellow of the ‘Royal Society’.


 He was appointed Professor of Surgery, University of Glasgow.


He was appointed professor of Clinical Surgery at the University of Edinburgh.


He was appointed Chairman of Clinical Surgery, Kings College, London.


He was appointed personal Surgeon in Ordinary to Queen Victoria.


He was accredited with the Honorary Doctorate from the University of Cambridge. He was also awarded Honorary Doctorate from University of Oxford.


Joseph Lister was awarded the Boudet Prize.


He was knighted as Sir Joseph Lister and was made a Baronet.


He was also made the Foreign Secretary of the‘Royal Society’.


He was raised to the peerage and titled Baron Lister.


He was awarded the ‘Order of Merit’ and made the Privy Councilor.


He passed away on February 10, 1912.

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Books by Joseph Lister

    On the Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery (Audiobook in MP3 Format)

    by Joseph Lister

    The Autobiography Of Joseph Lister, Of Bradford In Yorkshire (1842)

    by Joseph Lister

    The Autobiography of Joseph Lister, to Which Is Added a Contemporary Account of the Defence of Bradford and Capture of Leeds by the Parliamentarians in 1642. Ed. by T. Wright

    by Joseph Lister

Books About Joseph Lister

    Joseph Lister: Father of modern surgery (Armed Services edition)

    by Rhoda Truax

    The autobiography of Joseph Lister, of Bradford in Yorkshire, to which is added a contemporary account of the defence of Bradford and capture of Leeds by the Parliamentarians in 1642 [FACSIMILE]

    by Thomas, 1810-1877 Wright

    Biography - Lowbury, Edward (Joseph Lister) (1913-): An article from: Contemporary Authors

    by Gale Reference Team

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