King's College London
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Learning from Lister

Suture buttons

Photograph of two lead suture buttons with a piece of twine tied through their centres.Copies of lead suture buttons as used by Lister at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, 1860-69, made for Lister Centenary exhibition, 1927. Science Museum/SSPL.Suture is the surgical insertion of a stitch, or the stitch itself, or the material employed for stitching.

The button suture was one example of the way in which Lister used his antiseptic method to make all aspects of surgery safer and to minimise the risk of the surgeon unwittingly causing an infection in a wound. In 1873 he introduced the button suture ‘to take the place of the tips of two fingers of the two hands in giving support to the deeper parts of the wound.’

Oval pieces of lead on either side of the wound connected to and held silver-wire sutures running through the wound. In 1882 Lister modified the suture to make it suitable in 'approximating gaping wounds', particularly after breast surgery. The oval pieces of lead became ‘broad pieces of leaden plate, perforated in the centre’ to take the silver wire.

Lister is more renowned for his innovation of sutures made from catgut (the intestines of sheep), which had the advantage over unspun silk, commonly used by pre-Lister surgeons, in being inexpensive and very strong. When these sutures were administered antiseptically, the healing of arteries occurred more rapidly and without the potential risks to the patient of the absorption of foreign material.

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