One hundred years ago Joseph Lister invented antiseptic surgery. Like the steam-driven sailing ship, his achievements appear today as hopelessly dated, relics of the early technological age. His name lives on memoralized by a mouthwash, Listerine.
Richard B. Fisher's biography reminds us of the true scope of Lister's achievements. In the mid-19th century, physicians had only the vaguest gusess as to what caused infection. The advent of chloroform anesthesia had made surgery on all parts of the body far more tolerable. Yet surgical intervention remained extremely risky due to the frequency of postoperative infection. Surgeons operated in their frockcoats with unwashed hands and recently used instruments. Bacterial theory was unproved and unaccepted.
Against this backdrop Louis Pasteur performed his experiments on fermentation and expanded the concept of yeast in beer to bacteria in a wound. It was Lister working in England who seized the significance of these ideas and applied them to wounds of all sorts. He changed the course of medicine by applying antiseptic techniques to surgery in a manner that drastically reduced the rate of infection. He was perhaps the world's first applied bacteriologist.
Lister was Victorian to a fault, forbade the attendance of women at his lectures, neglected the more correct principles of aseptic surgery in favor of his elaborate antiseptic techniques, and insisted for many years on the use of an awkward and useless carbolic acid spray machine at the operating table. But his prescience and his doggedness changed the world in which he lived. Fisher's portrait of Lister is detailed but eminently readable, and significantly, reminds us of how we have gotten to where we are. (Stein & Day, $15).