The Burning Means it’s Working. A Pioneer of Antiseptics and Micriobiology, Dr. Joseph Lister.

Take a swig.  Slowly let the burning sensation take control of your senses.  Don’t give up yet, you’ve only ten more seconds of minty fresh torture to endure.  You spit it out two seconds early, but seriously, who’s counting, surely not Streptococcus mutans, and besides, you started early anyways so it’s all good.  This is an experience that a countless number of us do on a daily basis (and if you don’t, you should!).  But have you ever wondered how it came to be?

Joseph Lister, born in London in 1827, grew up to become one of the giants of infection control and antiseptic surgery.  In an age when post-operative infections resulted in mortality more times than not, Dr. Lister’s pioneering work set the stage for sterile surgical practices.  The state of surgery was such that, Sir James Simpson, had written, “A man laid on the operating table at one of our hospitals is exposed to more chance of death than the English soldier on the field at Waterloo.”  Dr. Lister, after having graduated from University College London, obtained Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons and moved to Edinburgh under the supervision of James Syme, who at the time was considered the premier surgeon in Europe.  He eventually married Syme’s eldest daughter, Agnes, and the pair moved to Glasgow where Lister joined the ranks of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

As post-operative infections continued to plague Lister and his peers, he found a solution in an unexpected place.  One of Lister’s friends, Thomas Anderson, who himself was a professor of Chemistry, suggested that Lister read Louis Pasteur’s papers on spontaneous generation.  Shortly after reading it, Lister realized that the “swan-neck” experiments held many applications, and found that as long as particles were excluded when using boiled urine as the medium, the presence of air did not cause decomposition.  Using this data, he faced a dilemma: how can you keep particles out of wounds when you cannot boil it?  To accomplish this, he referenced the use of phenol, or carbolic acid, to decontaminate sewage.  By using “German creosote,” a murky liquid with trace amounts of carbolic acid, on wounds, he began to see improvement in patient recovery.  He eventually applied this method during surgery, on both the patient, post-operatively, and on the hands of the surgeons beforehand.  This level of sterilization was unheard of at the time, and he even took it one step further and pumped a 20% solution of phenol into the air far ahead of the advent of air filtration systems.  After his results were published, he received critical acclaim abroad but a much colder response at home, and it took several years for his revolutionary ideas to become widespread general understanding.

He also went on to become one of the pioneers of the field of Medical Microbiology with his bacteriology laboratories.  He was the first ever to grow bacteria, specifically Bacterium lactis, in pure liquid culture and helped to pave the way for the other giants of Microbiology, including Robert Koch and Alexander Fleming.  His innovative work would earn him several distinguished awards, including becoming a Baronet in 1883 and a member of the Order of Merit.

In 1879, Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert created Listerine as a surgical antiseptic, and eventually put it to commercial use in 1914 as an over-the-counter mouthwash in the United States.  What a cool way to honor the man who revolutionized antiseptics and put their industry on the map, Dr. Joseph Lister.  Not to mention the bacterial genus, Listeria, that was named after him as well.

What an incredibly awesome and scientific mode of aide, cheers.

-Photos courtesy of the University of Glasgow, Life, and, and


About aflorin8

Simply a friend, biologist, photographer, avid reader, volleyball nut, humanitarian, and man.

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