It was Friedlieb Runge who discovered creosote, a chemical compound with anti-decomposition properties, widely used in the industrializing countries in the railway and shipping business since it protected the wood on train tracks and boats from rotting. It was also used for treating sewage, because it reduced the odor, although people were not exactly sure how.
Joseph Lister, a surgeon at the University of Glasgow, born on this day in 1827, suspected that chemical compounds such as creosote, could be used to combat skin wound decomposition, as well.
In an 1867 series of articles in The Lancet, entitled: "On a new method of treating compound fracture, abscess, etc.: with observation on the conditions of suppuration", Lister described the use of carbolic acid solution as a means to reduce the incidence of gangrene in surgical wounds. Lister applied a bandage dressing of carbolic acid onto the wound of a boy who had an open leg fracture. After four days, no infection had developed, and after a total of six weeks the bone healed without infection or decomposition. This was considered a remarkable achievement.
Lister began to instruct his junior surgeons to wash their hands before and after operations, to wear clean gowns and gloves and to sterilize medical instruments. The Glasgow infirmary saw a dramatic drop in wound decomposition compared to other surgical centers where surgeons were not required to wash hands or equipment at all and a bloody, soiled surgical gown or coat was seen as a sign of a surgeon’s experience.
As Professor of Surgery at the University of Edinburgh, Lister continued to develop improved methods improving wound healing, based on his reading of others like Louis Pasteur an he published and lectured widely on the subject of antisepsis and asepsis. When people began to realize that germs caused the decomposition of wounds and that this could be best prevented with hand washing and using chemical compounds to sterilize wound and surgical instruments, this led to the rise of sterile surgery, championed by Joseph Lister.
Born into a Quaker family, Joseph Lister’s father was Joseph Jackson Lister, a physicist and opticist, a leader in the development of compound microscopes. Lister attended the University of London , joined the Royal College of Surgeons at the age of 26. For his discoveries and work in medicine, he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Lister.
After retiring, he made few public appearances. In 1879, Listerine mouthwash was named after him for his work in antisepsis. Also named after Lister is the bacterial genus Listeria, of which the food-borne pathogen Listeria monocytogenes is a member. In 1901, Lister advised surgeons on the surgery on King Edward VII’s appendicitis case – preventing infection and saving the monarch’s life. King remarked to Lister saying, "I know that if it had not been for you and your work, I wouldn't be sitting here today."
Lister died in 1912 at the age of 84, at his home in Kent . His funeral held at Westminster Abbey.
Here's a poem by Arthur Guiterman:
The Antiseptic Baby and the Prophylactic Pup
Were playing in the garden when the Bunny gamboled up;
They looked upon the Creature with a loathing undisguised;—
It wasn't Disinfected and it wasn't Sterilized.
They said it was a Microbe and a Hotbed of Disease;
They steamed it in a vapor of a thousand-odd degrees;
They froze it in a freezer that was cold as Banished Hope
And washed it in permanganate with carbolated soap.
In sulphurated hydrogen they steeped its wiggly ears;
They trimmed its frisky whiskers with a pair of hard-boiled shears;
They donned their rubber mittens and they took it by the hand
And elected it a member of the Fumigated Band.
There's not a Micrococcus in the garden where they play;
They bathe in pure iodoform a dozen times a day;
And each imbibes his rations from a Hygienic Cup—
The Bunny and the Baby and the Prophylactic Pup.
And so, another entry in the Physician an Surgeon's Almanac for April 5, 2012, brought to you by Listeine Cigarettes. Fight bacteria while you freshen your breath; make your cigarettes Listerine.