, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 91-105

Joseph Lister and the origins of antisepsis

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Abstract

In the mid-nineteenth century when Joseph Baron Lister was beginning his surgical career, bold new theories of medicine were being proposed with increasing frequency. Many of these new theories were in conflict as to how the body functioned and how disease and injury should be approached. They all conflicted more, however, with the older theory of vitalism which they were gradually replacing. Lister believed in vitalism and was quite bothered by the new theories, but did not react to them with hostile criticism or bombast. His typical gentlemanly style was to test them quietly against his own understandings and beliefs. This historical essay focuses upon the feelings, thoughts, and beliefs of Joseph Lister as reflected by his background and his most important experiments. It will show that the discovery which transformed surgery did not originate from any “leading edge” medical theory of the era. The antiseptic principle originated from the experimentation of a troubled vitalist in the service of the theory in which he so passionately believed.