Lister – Father of Antiseptic Surgery

ListerJoseph Lister, the physician who discovered the means to create antiseptic surgery, must have been of strong character and controlled emotions to have withstood the ridicule and rejection from his colleagues.

His idea of contagion was not new; three other physicians had already realized that deaths from puerperal fever (known as child bed fever) were caused by contagious infection. But they did not follow through.

In 1795, Alexander Gordon, a physician, left the navy to set up general practice. He published a paper saying that puerperal fever was spread by doctors and nurses. Outrage was so overwhelming Gordon abandoned his private practice and returned to the navy.

Ignaz Semmelweiss headed the obstetric department in a large hospital in Vienna. It was a teaching hospital with a policy of doing autopsies after every death. By observation Semmelweiss recognized the contagious spread of infection from autopsy to maternity wards. His outrage and accusations did nothing to convince doctors of his convictions. He did not follow thru with tests for proof and did not publish for years. His book then was a mass of statistics that bored rather than convinced. He lost his emotional stability and went into an insane asylum where he died.

Oliver Wendall Holmes, a young physician and writer, was also convinced of contagion in child bed fever. He published an article in accepted journals but was derided by his superiors. He continued to maintain his position but did not prove it with testing.

Staunchly supported by his wife Agnes, Lister was able to test and prove and publish his findings and so deserves the title of the Father of Antiseptic Surgery.


Washing Hands – More Important than Vaccines?

In spite of knowledge as old as four thousand years people still resist washing their hands.

Finally the 2008 was declared the International Year of Sanitation and Global Handwashing Day was launched. It is now observed annually on October 15th.

It has been shown that washing hands routinely after sneezing or wiping the nose, before and after eating, and after using the toilet could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical discovery. Yet in 2009, surveys showed that some medical staff were still not washing their hands enough so campaigns circulated in hospitals along with alcohol-based sanitizers which were placed around conveniently to encourage use.

I can imagine the frown on Joseph Lister’s face if he could witness such lack of respect for his effort to prove that antiseptic surgery was a necessary practice without exception.