The Lyme Maze Game

Daedalus escapes the maze


Universal Workshop



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 until 1867.
        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.
        Lister's father, 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.