Imagine making a discovery so important that a whole branch of science dates its calendar by it.  That is what happened because of a Christian doctor.  Joseph Lister’s discovery of antisepsis has led some to divide the history of medicine into the eras “before Lister” and “after Lister.”  His work did more to save lives in the hospital than any other in history.  Surprisingly, it took nearly a generation for his discovery to become accepted.  He faced strong opposition from doctors and surgeons who didn’t believe him and weren’t about to change their ways.  In the end, however, because of Lister’s perseverance in teaching what he knew was right, and from the dramatic success of those who followed his procedures, his ideas finally took hold, and at his death, he was a world-wide hero.

Born in a devout Quaker household, young Joseph learned about science at an early age.  His father, Joseph Jackson Lister, a renowned amateur scientist himself, found a solution to the problem of chromatic aberration in microscope lenses.  This discovery brought a major improvement to microscopy which had been around since Leeuwenhoek first made crude hand-held devices in the late 17th century.  Leeuwenhoek had been the first to discover bacteria under the microscope.  Astonishingly, it took two centuries for doctors and scientists to make a connection between the tiny creatures and disease.

Joseph Jr. quickly became an expert at the microscope.  He studied at University College, London because Quakers and non-conformists were not allowed in Cambridge or Oxford.  By 1850, at age 23, he was a doctor, with degrees in medicine and surgery.  Three years later, he became the assistant of the great medical teacher Professor James Syme at Edinburgh, Scotland.  Syme was very impressed and desired to groom Joseph to become his successor.  The relationship was strengthened when Joseph became attracted to his daughter Agnes; the two married in 1856.  Lister joined his wife in the Anglican church.  Agnes took great interest in all of Lister’s work.  On their three-month honeymoon touring the continent, what did they do but visit all the major hospitals of France and Germany!  Though she bore no children, Agnes remained his most loyal and dedicated companion.  She helped with Joseph’s home laboratory.  She ran experiments, kept records and provided ample love and encouragement….

 

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