Lord Lister Remembers

Dr. Ian Carr

Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba

Setting the Scene


The year is 1898, Lord Lister, pioneer of antiseptic surgery is at the peak of his fame. He has just given the keynote address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Belfast, where Roman Catholics were second-class citizens, and had no option but to put up with it. The British Empire is at its zenith. Sir Garnet Wolseley having destroyed the ancient Ashanti kingdom, and suppressed the first Riel rebellion, has been paddled up the Nile by voyageur and is now Commander in Chief of the Imperial Army. Englishmen know that they have a God given right to rule lesser breeds without the law; it is almost two centuries since by bribery and skulduggery they destroyed the Scottish Parliament. Woman's place is in the home.

Lord Lister has recently visited Canada and passed through but did not stop in Winnipeg. He might have stopped, but didn't. If he had stopped he might have given a lecture to Winnipeg medical students something like this:

Good afternoon, Dean Good, colleagues and students. It is a pleasure to visit your medical school. I am going to tell you, not so much of my own small successes, as of the changes in my lifetime. Perhaps I should start at the beginning. I was a happy boy: I grew up in a modest house in the south of England. My dear father was a well off merchant--and a great microscopist.

As a young man I remember hearing about the horrors of surgery in the old days. The operating theatre... The tales the medical students told....worst of all the tales the patients told.... The great surgeons before the days of anaesthetics were very skilled and fast.... The change came about 1842, and by chance the year I started my medical studies.

My earliest memories as a medical student relate to the poor people dying of tuberculosis or pneumonia, and how we listened to their chests with a new fangled instrument called a stethoscope, invented by M. Laennec. Poor Laennec; he died young of galloping consumption.

I remember too the first day I walked into an operating theatre.

The year I became a medical student it so happened that the tide began to turn. I watched the first anaesthetic being given in England, and I came later to know Professor James Young Simpson who introduced chloroform.

After I qualified in medicine in 1852, I went to Edinburgh and worked with Professor Syme; at the same time I continued my researches in experimental pathology--on pus cells and clotting. In Edinburgh I met with my dear wife, who happened to be my Professor's daughter.

In 1861, I moved to Glasgow as professor; I remember the trouble I had in giving my inaugural lecture in Latin, and how relieved I was when the University Vice-Chancellor spoke the words half way through my lecture, Satis disseruitis. He told me later he didn't understand the half of it. I became surgeon in charge of wards in the Royal Infirmary, where my wards were just over the wall from the cholera pits, the mass graves of the cholera victims. Erysipelas, pyaemia, septicaemia, tetanus gangrene, amputations, death...the wards were foul with the smell of it.

About this time I read of M. Pasteur's work on germs, and I remember reading how the town authorities in the little town of Carlisle, rendered their sewage sweet smelling, by treating with carbolic acid. And I wondered. Patients with compound fractures, fractures where the skin of the fracture site is broken nearly always died of sepsis. I had an idea, an hypothesis --perhaps infected fractures were like sewage.

The administrators of the hospital would not give me a further term as surgeon in charge of wards. I moved to Edinburgh. In Edinburgh and developed my work; carbolic acid worked and was used in Canada by 1880, and in Winnipeg about 1885. Nobody liked it; it caused dreadful skin rashes, and was followed by aseptic surgery.

But enough of myself, what about the other memories of a lifetime?

My life as a surgeon was made much easier by the new Nightingale nurses, trained to be competent helpers; I have since regretted that X rays came two years after I retired. What a difference they make. The changes in surgery and infectious disease made a great difference to childbirth; puerperal fever is already less common, and women die far less often in obstructed labour.

The social conditions of the time were of course appalling. And all my life I watched slow improvement in public hygiene. Our dear Queen's husband died of typhoid.

Young men from round the world came to me to learn, and my ideas were not accepted without some argument. Canadians of course came to see me. A young man by the name of Chown who was my dresser, my assistant, in 1886. It is a great pleasure to see Dr. Chown and Dr. Blanchard again.

But the greatest occasion of my life was to meet M. Pasteur--from whose experiments my own work grew.

I have always believed that animal experiments were justified to relieve human suffering. In Belfast at a recent British Academy meeting I said so loud and clear, and I said too how privileged we are to serve humanity in the noble profession of medicine, -- and I include you as medical students.

Was I a great man? I never felt so: but I was privileged to be involved in great things. Now you will excuse me--I have to go off to our dear Queen's Golden Jubilee.

As Lord Lister fades, remember that great men and women are only a part of history, but a significant part. Remember also that in their brief day they laughed and loved and took joy in the sunshine. Their memory makes history come alive.