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In the Footsteps of St Mungo

Point C - Lister and Royal Infirmary

Lister at Royal Infirmary

Walking Route Instructions: As you walk along the front of the Royal Infirmary buildings, through the fence on the side of the wall of the Royal Infirmary you can see a tribute plaque to Joseph Lister, surgeon at the Royal Infirmary and pioneer of the use of antiseptic treatment.

Joseph Lister (1827-1912) was an English Quaker and was thus debarred from Oxford or Cambridge. However, University College London had been founded in 1826 and he qualified in medicine there and then chose to train with Professor Syme in Edinburgh. He distinguished himself and was appointed  Regius Professor of Surgery in Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1860.

He chose carbolic acid as his antiseptic. Phenol or carbolic acid had been discovered by Friedlieb Runge, a German chemist, in 1834. Lister started by treating wounds with dilute carbolic acid solutions and went on to operate with instruments washed in carbolic acid, with drapes and skin cleaned with it, and even used a carbolic acid spray to try to remove bacteria in the air. His results were sensational and modern surgery was born after he published his results in The Lancet in 1867.

One day, while walking up High Street, Thomas Anderson asked if he had read a paper by Louis Pasteur. He got hold of a copy and read about Pasteur’s experiments on contagion. At the time there were two main theories. One was that contagion was transmitted by a miasma of bad air and the other was that it was transmitted by germs such as bacteria. Pasteur showed conclusively that the latter was correct. At the time, surgical procedures were very hazardous because of post surgical sepsis. For example, operations on the abdomen were almost always fatal. Lister realised the implications of Pasteur’s results. He decided to try and conduct his operations under antiseptic conditions. 

Lister never met Pasteur but they knew of and admired each other. When Pasteur died in 1895, Lister was invited to speak at his memorial service.

This history nicely illustrates the transnational nature of science and the advantages of cooperation.

Thanks for this fabulous contribution to Dr Michael Boulton-Jones !

Walking Route Instructions: Return along the same pavement you arrived on and walk to the pedestrian crossing in front of the St Mungo Museum. From here you can cross Castle Street (the A8) to our next stop, Provand’s Lordship