The Story of Joseph Lister and his Carbolic Acid Sprayer

Lord Joseph Lister has often been called the father of modern surgery, and for good reason! Building on the work of Louis Pasteur, Lister dispensed with the then-prevalent miasma theory of disease (that diseases were caused by “bad air”) and adopted the germ theory of disease– that diseases are caused by microscopic germs.

Lister took this knowledge and combined it with the observation that carbolic acid was already being safely used to clean sewers and dress wounds, and in 1865 he created a new, aseptic method of surgery using carbolic acid to sanitize the operating room.

In the early 1870s, he invented the carbolic acid steam sprayer to do the job of sanitizing by spraying carbolic acid over the entire operating room.

The method was a success, and Lister reported a fall from 45% to 15% mortality following his surgeries at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Despite his successes with this new method, it was not until the late 1870s that it became more fully accepted.

The steam sprayer later fell out of use in 1887 because Lister found that most airborne bacteria were not pathogenic, but his recommendations to wash surgeons’ hands and tools in a carbolic acid solution remained vital to the practice of aseptic surgery.

In his personal life, Lister was a shy and gentle man, wanting simply to humbly do the work he believed God had directed him to do. His beloved wife Agnes Syme was his partner in his work, and he retired from surgical practice not long after her death. Lister passed away in 1912, having saved the lives of countless patients. Lister’s carbolic acid solution later led to another great medical invention and a great love story– but that’s a tale for another Tuesday!

To learn more about Lister’s role in the fight against infection visit our blog post:

Shaelyn Ryan<br>(Collections Technician/Assistant 2020-2021)
Shaelyn Ryan
(Collections Technician/Assistant 2020-2021)

Shaelyn Ryan is an undergraduate student Queen’s University, currently completing her forth (and final) year in the Bachelor of Arts History Program. Either as a Summer Student or Work-Study Student through Queen’s University, Shaelyn has helped catalogue and research many of the museum’s collection of artefacts as a Collections Technician (since 2018).

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