03 November 2010

Real Life Heroes: Joseph Lister

By Anna Randol

Quick, when I say hospital, what images come to mind? Polished floors and florescent lights? Doctors in white jackets and surgical masks? The smell of disinfectant?

If we had asked this question to someone living in the London in the 1800s, their answers would have been far different. For instance, people often found their way to the surgical ward of a hospital by following the smell of rotting flesh. Doctors saw no need to wash their hands between patients. In fact, an apron covered in layers of gore was thought to show how important and busy a doctor was. Instruments weren't washed between patients and observers might even smoke as they crowed around an operation. If a wound became infected, it was the result of bad air, and as unfortunate as that was, there was nothing a doctor could do about it.

So how did we get from that nightmare to the safe, clean environment we expect from our hospitals today?

Enter medical hero, Joseph Lister.

Joseph Lister was a British doctor in the second half of the 1800s. He began to notice a correlation between cleanliness and infection. For instance, he noted that babies that had been delivered by midwives had a much higher survival rate than those delivered by surgeons. He correctly attributed this to the fact that the midwives washed their hands far more frequently. He also noticed something interesting--compound fractures where a bone pierced the skin had much higher infection rates than fractures that did not. Lister realized that something must be getting into the wounds to cause the infection.

After reading Louis Pasteur's work about the microorganisms that caused fermentation, Lister finally had his answer. With his beautiful and ever-dedicated wife at his side, he began to experiment. Pasteur claimed there were three ways to kill the microorganisms: heat, filtration, or chemicals. Since the first two options wouldn't work on a living person, Lister settled on the third. He'd heard that a nearby city was having great success deodorizing its sewage with carbolic acid, so he began treating wounds with it. When his infection rates dropped dramatically, he also began to recommend surgeons wash their hands and instruments with it as well.

Encouraged by his success, French and German surgeons began to follow his lead. Lister's antiseptic techniques were credited with saving hundreds of soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War

But surgeons in Britain didn't rush to follow his example. Using the carbolic acid took too much time and was too much of a hassle to bother with, they argued. It also burned the eyes and hands and was an added expense. Lister knew that to convince the world he needed to convince London, so he persisted in his cause.

Soon Lister was operating on injuries that other surgeons thought too risky due to the chance of infection. In 1877, he agreed to perform a surgery on a man's fractured kneecap. The announcement met with widespread opposition. Lister would be turning a simple fracture into a compound one, a procedure that usually resulted in infection and death. But Lister trusted his discovery and also recognized the opportunity this presented to prove his theory to his opponents. The surgery was successful, and finally the surgeons of Britain began to follow Lister's example.

Due to Lister's perseverance, hundreds of lives were saved during his time and countless more after that. So next time a doctor dons fresh gloves before an operation or opens a sterile syringe, sigh in relief and give thanks for Joseph Lister.

Anna Randol writes sultry, adventurous Regency romances. Her debut novel, set in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, will be released by Avon in the beginning of 2012.