Sir Joseph Lister, Bt. and Listerine

Photo by Britta Gustafson
Photo by Britta Gustafson

Listerine is an antiseptic mouthwash, but where does the name originate? It is named for a person: Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister, also known as the Father of Modern Surgery. Until he entered the field of medicine, the popular theory of infection was not due to bacteria but “bad air”. At the time, surgeons would not even wash their hands between surgeries and “the good old surgical stink of the wards” was a mark of pride amongst surgeons! When the chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge isolated phenol (carbolic acid) in 1834, and Lister began to experiment with it… all of that behavior would change.

Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister Photo from Wellcome Images
Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister
Photo from Wellcome Images

Carbolic acid was similar to creosote (a chemical of distilled tar), and there was discussion as to how similar their properties were. Creosote had been commonly used to treat sewage, and Lister wondered whether using carbolic acid could be effective in treating wounds to prevent infection. When using phenol in all dressings, tools, and wounds, he discovered a remarkable decrease in infection rate. When he used the acid in the process of treating a compound fracture of a seven year old boy, and the bones fused together without trouble… Lister knew he had come upon something incredible.

A patient being sprayed with phenol
A patient being sprayed with phenol

With this discovery, all surgeons under his supervision were told to wash their hands with a 5% carbolic acid solution between each surgery. In addition, his surgeons became the first to wear clean gloves during surgery! He expanded this use of antiseptic theories by having entire operating theatres sprayed with the solution and eliminating the use of porous tools like wood (that may hide bacteria inside). News of this spread quickly, and when he became Professor of Surgery at the University of Edinburgh, hundreds of people would attend his lectures.

The Lister Medal, which has only been given to 27 people since its creation.
The Lister Medal, which has only been given to 27 people since its creation.

Joseph Lister’s own experiments quickly helped to confirm the rising “germ theory of disease” (which had begun with Pasteur’s experiments around the same time).While we often take this for granted today, it was a revolution of thought at the time. For his discovery, Queen Victoria made him a Baronet (eventually raising him to Baron). After his death, the Lister Medal was created to be given to surgeons and scientists “for distiguished contributions to surgical science” (which remains one of the highest honors a surgeon can receive). Only a few years after his initial experiments, Joseph Lawrence in America created a proprietary antiseptic formula for use as a general germicide and surgical antiseptic. He named the product “Listerine” in honor of the man who inspired him.

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