It is no exaggeration to say that Lord Lister. the great English surgeon, has saved millions of lives. Without his wonderful discoveries, many of the operations performed in hospitals would have ended in death.
Before his time, even a simple operation was dangerous. It might be skillfully performed and prove quite successful ; yet, as likely as not, the patient would die soon after of what was called “hospital-sickness”. This was the popular name given to the inflammation that generally arose in the wound made by the surgeon’s knife. However carefully the wound was dressed, what is called sepsis, or poisoning, too often set in, and this often led to death. It was Lister who solved the problem by his wonderful system of what is called “aseptic surgery”.
Lister puzzled over this problem for years ; but he made no progress until he heard of the discoveries of Louis Pasteur, a great French chemist. Pasteur, after years of experiment, had found that many diseases were caused by microbes or germs—tiny living creatures, so small that they could scarcely be seen even under the microscope. These microbes are present everywhere, in the air we breathe, and in liquid and solid substances. Lister at once guessed that microbes caused the inflammation or poisoning that so often came in cuts and wounds. If these microbes could be kept away from the wounds caused by the surgeon’s knife, the greatest danger in operations would be got rid of. This led him to his great discovery, which he called aseptic surgery; that is, surgery carried on without the presence of any “sepsis”, or poison-producing germs.
He, therefore, made a patient who was to be operated on take a bath in disinfectants just before the operation. The air, and everything in the operating room, were “sterilized”, that is, so treated with disinfectants that all germs were killed. The surgical instruments were plunged into boiling water. He dipped his own hands in disinfectants before operating. By these means no microbes could get into the wounds made in operating. The result of this method of Lister’s proved a complete success, and caused a complete revolution in the methods of surgery.
Lister’s method of aseptic surgery is the rule in the civilized countries to-day. Owing to it, the most serious operations can now be performed without the slightest risk of the patients’ dying of blood-poisoning.