Joseph Lister: God’s Surgeon


1827 – 1912

And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee.     Exodus 15:26

Born on April 5, 1827 in Upton, Essex, Joseph Lister was the son of the British physicist Joseph Jackson Lister. Joseph Lister perfected the Compound Microscope and shared the credit with Dr. Thomas Hodgkin of being first to describe the true shape of a red blood cell.
     Young Lister became a doctor due to his religion as a Quaker, because under English law Quakers were barred from entering schools and colleges as students or teachers. After an early education at several Quaker schools he entered University College, London. After studying the arts he graduated and decided to take up medicine at the same college. He enrolled in the faculty of medical science in October 1848. During this time he was taught by physiologist William Sharpey, known as one of the greatest surgical teacher of his day. Lister was a brilliant student and graduated with honors in 1852.
      In October 1856 he was appointed as an assistant surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, to James Syme, who's daughter he later married. The marriage, although unable to have children, was a happy one. He had his wife along side him and she was a great part of his professional life.
      While a professor at Glasgow Infirmary, Lister pioneered many new surgical techniques and instruments. Some of these include:
• A hook to remove small objects from the ear
• The Screw Tourniquet
• Sinus forceps
• Rubber drainage tube for use during surgery

      During the middle of the nineteenth century, post-operative sepsis infection accounted for the death of almost half of the patients undergoing major surgery. A common report by surgeons was: The operation was successful but the patient died.
      In 1839 the chemist Justin von Liebig had asserted that sepsis was a kind of combustion caused by exposing moist body tissue to oxygen. It was therefore considered that the best prevention was to keep air away from wounds by means of plasters.
      Lister doubted Justin von Liebig’s explanation. For many years he had explored the inflammation of wounds at the Glasgow infirmary. These observations had led him to consider that infection was not due to bad air alone and that 'wound sepsis' was a form of decomposition.
      Between 1861 and 1865 in Lister’s Male Accident Ward, 45 to 50 percent of his amputation cases died from sepsis. It was in this ward that Lister began his experimental work with antisepsis.
      In 1865, Louis Pasteur observed that decay was caused by living organisms (Germs) in the air, which on entering matter caused it to ferment. Lister made the connection with wound sepsis.
      A researcher and surgeon, Lister recognized the relationship between Pasteur's research and his own. He considered that germs in the air were likely causing the putrefaction and had to be destroyed before they entered the wound.  The previous year Lister had heard that “carbolic acid' was used to treat sewage in Carlise and as a result certain fields were freed of a parasite causing disease in cattle.
      Lister now began to clean wounds and dress them using a solution of carbolic acid.  He was able to keep his wards free of Sepsis for over nine months. When he reported his findings to a British Medical Association meeting in 1867, his findings initially met with indifference and hostility.
     Years earlier in 1844 in Austria, a woman went into the Great Vienna Hospital to have her baby. One mother out of every five died of child-bed fever. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, set out to find why. In those days no one knew about bacteria and while the existence of "germs" was suspected it was merely a theory. Semmelweis noticed that after examining the dead patients the young doctors would then examine the living and never considered washing their hands between examinations. With great opposition Dr. Semmelweis insisted they wash their hands after each patient and the death rate dropped to almost zero. Sadly, Dr. Semmelweis was dismissed and the old practice continued along with the awful death rate.
      In life, Lister was a shy, unassuming man and deeply religious. He joined the Scottish Episcopal Church as a young man. He was firm in his purpose, humbly believing himself to be directed by God. He was uninterested in social success or financial reward.
      The woman he married was not a Quaker, so Lister had to leave the Quaker Society. He faithfully attended the Scottish Episcopal Church the rest of his life. A man of true Christian character, no one ever heard him raise his voice in anger. If ever he did anything to give offense, he was quick to apologize. He said of himself, "I am a believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity." He told a graduating class: "It is our proud office to tend the fleshly tabernacle of the immortal spirit, and our path, if rightly followed, will be guided by unfettered truth and love unfeigned. In pursuit of this noble and holy calling I wish you all God-speed."
      The following are a few of the Biblical principals that were consistent with what the medical field needed but did not realize how they could have saved thousands of lives.

Health and Sanitary Practices found in Scripture

  • Wound, Skin, and Discharge Precautions - Leviticus 15:2-11, 17:11
  • Postpartum Precautions - Leviticus 12:2-3
  • Burial Precautions - Numbers 19:11, 14-16,19,22, Leviticus 11:24-28, 40
  • Isolation and Quarantine - Leviticus 13:1-14:57, Numbers 5:2-4, Deuteronomy 23:10
  • Waste Disposal - Deuteronomy 23:12-14, Leviticus 11:33, 13:47-58, 15:12

     Several years ago a man wondered if he could improve sanitation conditions and use the above scriptures to help. Later he built a sanitation plant based on these scriptures that is considered one of the best in the nation.


     God’s word tells us that there is no wisdom or counsel that will contradict his word (Proverbs 21:30). In any area God’s word has something to say about it.  What about the most important decision one will make in his life time? Where will you spend eternity?

How does anyone get to heaven?

     First realize that they cannot get to heaven on their own merits. The Bible says that “For all have sinned and come short (that means everybody can’t get to Heaven on their own) of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)

Jesus Christ (who is the Son of the living God) came to earth and was born of a virgin woman (therefore he was not born of the curse of mankind) he lived a sinless life and died on a cross for all the sins in the world. Three days later, God the Father raised Him from the dead. He was seen of 500 witnesses and returned to heaven. God’s word says that if we believe these things and call upon the Lord, we will be saved. Romans 10:9 - 13