King's College London
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Learning from Lister

Cheyne on antiseptic surgery

Half-title page with inscripton in ink, 'With the author’s complimentsHalf-title page from Cheyne's work, with inscription 'With the author’s compliments.'

Sir William Watson Cheyne (1852-1932), known as Lister’s ‘bulldog’, was one of the few people who was personally as well as professionally close to Lister. In the words of Anne Crowther and Marguerite Dupree, Lister was like a ‘surrogate father’ to him, Cheyne having lost his own father at the age of 15.

Like Lister, Cheyne was a clinical scientist as well as a surgeon. He specialised in bacteriology, and at King’s had his own laboratory above the operating theatre. He moved from Edinburgh to King’s with Lister in 1877. Because of hostility towards Lister and his associates from the staff at King’s, Cheyne contemplated a career as a colonial surgeon in India, but Lister paid him a retaining fee of £200 per annum to act as his private assistant and to administer anaesthetics during operations. He went on to have a distinguished career at King’s and was a decorated military surgeon during both the Boer War and the First World War.

Lister himself never wrote a textbook in which he explained and defended his methods, but his allies were prolific in this regard. This book was described by The Lancet as ‘a starting-point for the more general adoption of Mr Lister’s treatment.’

Cheyne discussed both the bacteriological ideas which supported antisepsis and the practicalities of surgery; there were four chapters on surgical dressings. He stressed that antisepsis was a flexible and changing practice, which could adapt to different circumstances. He recommended a modified version of Listerism for country doctors, who would have to perform operations in domestic settings. For them, the carbolic spray would be too cumbersome to transport, but they needed carbolic lotion and carbolised catgut for stitches and for draining wounds. Lister himself had discarded the use of the spray even in hospital contexts by the 1890s.

This copy is inscribed by the author to King’s College Hospital.

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