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Learning from Lister
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Learning from Lister

Photogravure of portrait of Lister, aged 68Photogravure of portrait of Lister, aged 68, from original painting by John Henry Lorimer (1856-1936). King’s College London Archives.2012 marked the centenary of the death of the celebrated surgeon, Joseph, Baron Lister, whose ‘discovery’ of antiseptic surgery has made him, along with Florence Nightingale and Edward Jenner, one of the few medical ‘household names’.

Antiseptics are agents which inhibit the growth of micro-organisms, such as bacteria and viruses. They do not destroy them; that partial victory had to wait until the advent of antibiotics. Antiseptics have been in medical use since classical antiquity, but Lister was the first both to apply science systematically to antisepsis and to ensure that it became an integral part of surgical practice.

Recent scholarship has modified the popular view, by stressing that the theory and practice of antiseptic surgery changed during his lifetime, as both Lister’s scientific knowledge and his surgical techniques developed. Attempts to apply antiseptic techniques in military and colonial contexts were often fraught with difficulty. Doubt has even been cast on the effectiveness of antiseptic surgery in reducing hospital mortality. However, Lister’s place in making science the servant of a surgical practice which has helped to save countless lives seems secure.

Lister’s own scientific research and his close and informed interest in the research of others (most notably Louis Pasteur) distinguished him from the majority of English surgeons of his day, who did not pursue systematic scientific research, but relied on practical empirical innovation. Eminent scientists of the day regarded Lister as their equal, as is shown by his long involvement in the Royal Society, both as a Fellow and as President.

However, there was general agreement among medical practitioners that conditions in the large urban Victorian hospitals were insanitary, and that this had made the issue of surgical cleanliness imperative. The Victorian obsession with statistics had proved this beyond doubt. During his tenure of the chair of clinical surgery at King’s College London Lister succeeded in persuading sceptics, while at the same time significantly modifying his own surgical practice. This period was the successful culmination of a lifetime of scientific experimentation and surgical innovation.

In this exhibition we seek to bring Lister’s career and milieu to life through artefacts, personal effects, documents and books. The exhibition was made possible by the generous loan of objects from the following organisations: the Royal College of Surgeons of England, the Science Museum and University College London Art Museum. The staff of the Foyle Special Collections Library would also like to thank Mr Ben Chisnall, Professor Marguerite Dupree and Professor Brian Hurwitz for their invaluable assistance during the preparation of the exhibition and the King’s College Hospital Charity for its support. We are also grateful to the individuals and organisations who granted us permission to reproduce images in this online version of the exhibition.

Exhibition curator: Brandon High

PLEASE NOTE: This exhibition originally ran from 26 January – 14 April 2012 in the Weston Room of the Maughan Library, King’s College London, and is now available to view as an online exhibition only.

Viewers of this online exhibition may also be interested to view the online exhibition Images of Lord Lister drawn from the Archives held at King's College London.

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