The Advent of Antiseptic Surgery

Joseph Lister - 1902
Joseph Lister – 1902

Joseph Lister was a British surgeon who practised and lectured for many years in both Edinburgh and Glasgow but he is remembered today as the pioneer of antiseptic surgery.  He’d shown concern for what was known as ‘hospital disease’, a great problem in medicine at the time and something so many of his patients succumbed to.  With the publication of Louis Pasteur‘s germ theory in 1865 Lister began to recognise that there was something not only in the air, but everywhere else, including the hands of surgeons, causing this fatal problem.

His experiments to tackle hospital disease began somewhat unsuccessfully at first but settled on the use of carbolic acid.  Lister’s work and discoveries were very much reliant on the work of Frederick Crace-Calvert, a Manchester chemist who gave lectures on inorganic chemistry to pharmaceutical students and was heavily involved in the use of scientific development within industry.  Working with the cotton industry in the manufacture of dyes he had developed techniques to mass produce carbolic acid, which we know he later supplied in great quantities to Lister.

Lister signatureWithin the Manchester Medical Manuscripts Collection there exists a collection of 14 letters most of which are addressed to Crace-Calvert and come from sources as varied as the Admiralty and the Crown Princess of Prussia.  They all touch upon the supply and widening use of carbolic acid and notably three of them are from Joseph Lister.  The earliest of these letters is dated November 1867, the year Lister first published his findings, and it is clear that Lister is still experimenting with the different forms of carbolic acid.  His letters represent more than just requests for further supplies as he goes on to discuss his current work and experiments and the results of some of his findings.

Crace-Calvert didn’t just focus his efforts on industrial chemistry and the production of material for others but showed great interest in a variety of scientific debates.  The other correspondence in the collection demonstrates some of the great efforts he made to see carbolic acid used more widely including in army hospitals, the navy, and metropolitan hospitals.  Significantly it is recognised that even before Lister’s 1867 publications, Crace-Calvert had been very vocal in the promotion of the sanitary benefits of carbolic acid.



Frederick F. Cartwright, Joseph Lister, The Man Who Made Surgery Safe, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 1963

J.K. Crellin, ‘Calvert, Frederick Crace-(1819–1873)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005 [, accessed 20 Oct 2015]

Christopher Lawrence, ‘Lister, Joseph, Baron Lister (1827–1912)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 20 Oct 2015]

Brian Robinson, The History of Pharmaceutical Education in Manchester, Department of Pharmacy, University of Manchester, 1986.

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