Baron Joseph Lister

By C.J. Armstrong, M.D.
Professor of Surgery
March 1927


              Lord Lister occupies an honorable place amongst the Road Makers of Science: he ranks also as one of the greatest benefactors of mankind.  His indefatigable search for better methods of treating wounds and injuries led him to discover a new principle, the antiseptic system, which enabled him to overcome the grave dangers of septic infection of wounds and opened the way to undreamt-of developments for Surgery.  Listers’s life was not an eventful one.  All his time and energy were devoted to h is work and the tale of his life is the tale of his work.

            It has been a common occurrence in the experience of the world for a science to make but slow progress beyond a certain point until some discovery, often made outside the realm of that particular scie3nce, has been applied to its use, with the result that a few years have seen developments undreamt-of during the preceding centuries.

            As the result of Joseph Baron Lister’s life and work the history of surgery can be divided, in spite of its antiquity, into two periods only:  the pre-Listerian era and the modern era.


            The neighborhood of West Ham, a suburb of London, is not noted for its clear exhilarating atmosphere and azure sky one is won’t to think of as favoring the cradle of genius.  Yet it was here, in Upton Lane, that Joseph Lister was born, April 5, 1827.  This neighborhood was composed large of Quakers, and the Listers also were of the Quaker persuasion—members, The Society of Friends.  Members of this society were noted for plainness and sobriety of living, earnestness of purpose, industry and a complete withdrawal from participation in what were regarded worldly and wicked amusements.  This simple mode of living enabled its members to prosper in business and in the development of those artistic accomplishments and metal attainments which distinguish the cultured from the ignorant.  However, in those days the peculiar characteristics of the sect were still preserved and in many ways the world into which Lord Lister was born was a very narrow one.  Except in business matters the Friends were largely cut off from the world in general They refused to take any oath or the subscribe to the thirty-nine articles, therefore they could not be admitted to Oxford or Cambridge Universities.  For this reason most of them were kept from entering the professions except that of medicine.  Few, however, took this up.  Neither were careers open to them in the Army or Navy as they held pacifist views.  The theater, dancing, music, hunting and other pastimes were forbidden.  The Quaker costume was still worn and this alone was sufficient to distinguish them from the remainder of the world.

            It may have been that this narrowness was the element needed to foster those talents with which Lord Lister was born and to encourage such characteristics as enabled him in later years to follow his purpose in life with singleness of aim, with minute attention to detail and with great devotion, without which he could not have attained the end he sought.  At any rate, it was into such a world that Joseph Lister, the fourth child and second son was born.

            His environment was a happy and favorable one.  Although he and his brothers and sisters as children were impressed with the idea that life was a serious responsibility, a gift to be employed for God and in the service of mankind, they nevertheless had a wholesome and enjoyable existence.  The parents saw to it that they had plenty of fun, riding, games, country walks, skating, and parties to which their friends were invited.

            The home in which Lord Lister was born is situated in Upon Lane and is still known as Upton Lane.  At that time it was surrounded by an estate of sixty-nine acres with spacious gardens and fields.  Today it is cut up into road lined by rows of Workmen’s cottages.

            The Lister home, however, still exists and forms today the vicarage of St. Peter’s Church.  It is an ideal home, well built and proportioned with an exterior dignified and pleasing.


            Lister very early in life expressed his desire to become a surgeon.  Whether he changed his mind form time to time history does not record, but as he grew older his desire for a scientific career too serious hold upon him. While a mere school boy he began to dissect animals and articulate their skeletons.  At the age of fifteen he wrote four essays on “The Human Structure – Osetology” one of which was entitled “The Similarity of Structures Between a Monkey and a Man.”  It is interesting to speculate as to whence came Lister’s desire and talents in this direction.  No Lister had never been a doctor nor had taken up a professional career.  They were originally simple country people.


            Lord Lister’s father, Joseph Jackson Lister, was a man of marked genius.  As a child he was near-sighted and in order to see the landscape more comfortably from his nursery window he was accustomed to glue his eye on an air bubble which had become imprisoned in the glass.  The bubble acted as a lens and enabled him to see with greater ease.  Only a genius child could be led to a valuable discovery by such a simple observation.  Yet it was this which caused him to be interested in the field of optics and devote his leisure time to microscopic studies.  As a result of these studies he gave to the world the Achromatic Lens and the modern microscope.  In recognition of his scientific achievements he received the high distinction of being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.  Apparently he was the first and only man to establish a firm reputation upon a bubble.

            Joseph Jackson Lister was a prosperous wine merchant, having succeeded his father in this trade.  He received a good education and was able very early to read, with much pleasure to himself, the best Latin authors. He was so successful that he was frequently sent to various parts of the country on business errands.  It was while he was making one of these business trips to Yorkshire that he visited the Quaker school at Ackworth.  Here he met and fell in love with Isabella Harris, aged twenty-two years, who afterwards became his wife in 1818 and the mother of Lord Lister.  She was the daughter of Mrs. Harris, the superintendent of the school, a widow with six children.  From a drawing executed by Joseph Lister in 1821, Lord Lister’s mother appears to have been a beautiful woman, with fine, regular features and kindly expression.  As a teacher at the school in Ackworth she was noted for her elocutionary powers and for the gentle and winning goodness of her character.