I learned why we should honour Joseph Lister when I read this passage
by Sherwin Nuland in American Scholar (the quarterly of the
Phi Beta Kappa society), Winter 2004. Nuland is giving several entertaining
examples of how personality can influence the course of science,
whereas recent historians have tended to attribute everything to
the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the time.
In my own specialty, surgery,
there are abundant examples of men whose personalities left their
mark on the course of medical history, Zeitgeist or no Zeitgeist.
In 1837, a young Hungarian obstetrician named Ignac Semmelweis,
in a moment of inspired brilliance, discovered the reason why almost
20 percent of the obstetric patients in virtually all of the major
European hospitals were dying of childbed fever: the obstetricians
were not washing their hands after performing autopsies on the pus-ridden
bodies of the women who had died of the same disease within the
previous twenty-four hours. Without a microscope, and long before
germs had been recognized as the agents of disease, Semmelweis intuited
that invisible organic matter on the hands of the doctors
was being conveyed into the genital tracts of women in labor, consigning
them to an anguished death. But he was a self-righteous and combative
man, and he alienated his superiors and most of his colleagues by
accusing them of remorselessly murdering women when they would not
accept his theory without experimental proof. After a halfhearted
attempt to provide such evidence using a few rabbits, he refused
to do further laboratory work, contemptuously declaring the truth
of his assertion to be so self-evident that no additional studies
were needed. He saw every attack on his doctrine as an attack on
himself. Semmelweis would die in a Vienna mental asylum, beaten
to death by orderlies trying to restrain him. His great discovery
was forgotten, and the promulgation of the germ theory, which would
have occurred around 1840 had he been less bull-headed, was delayed
When the theory
was finally brought forth in that year by the gentle, supremely
patient Quaker surgeon Joseph Lister, the notion of microscopic
organisms causing disease seemed so outlandish and even foolish
to the physicians of the time that it found little general
acceptance. It was the quiet persistence and good-natured equanimity
of Lister along with his continuing experiments, his demonstrations,
his writings, and his willingness to travel from hospital to hospital
to disseminate his beliefs that finally won the day, though
that day was delayed for some two decades.
In other words, if Semmelweis had had the personality of Lister,
millions of women would have been saved from anguished death.
Incidentally, a recent study has shown that 90 percent of hospital
staff wash their hands if someone can see them, but only 40 percent
if they are alone.
also called Joseph, was an optician who perfected the microscopes
that his son later put to such good use. Joseph the younger (1827-1912)
made many discoveries in how to treat infection, inflammation, hemorrhage,
and how to improve surgical operations and instruments; was a founder
in 1891 of the British (later Lister) Institute of Preventive Medicine
in London, and in 1897 became the first medical man to be raised
to the peerage, as Lord Lister of Lyme Regis.
Lift eyes again,
with renewed respect, to his garden.