Joseph Lister was born on 5 April 1827 in Upton Essex. He was the son of a wine merchant and amateur physicist and after education at various Quaker schools he entered University College, London. He initially studied fine art
before taking up medicine in 1848. He graduated in 1852 and was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in the same year. in October 1856 he was appointed assistant surgeon to James Syme at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. He
initially intended to study in Scotland for one month but ended up staying 24 years! He later married Syme's daughter, Agnes. In 1859 he was appointed Regius Professor of Surgery at Glasgow and in 1861 headed the surgical department at the
Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
Between 1861 and 1865 he recognised that over half of his amputation patients in Glasgow died as a result of post-operative infection and it was against this background that he began his experimental work with antisepsis. Following the
discovery in 1865 by Louis Pasteur that decay resulted from transmission of air-borne organisms, Lister recognised the microbes in the air were the likely source of wound sepsis. In the previous year he had heard that 'carbolic acid' was
being used to treat sewage in Carlisle and so began to treat wound the same way. On 12 August 1865 he first used carbolic acid in the treatment of an 11 year old boy with a compound fracture of his tibia. In 1867, he presented to the British
Medical Association that the use of carbolic acid had prevented wound infections and in 1869 he first described the use of a carbolic spray to the wound and the atmosphere around an operation. He described the use of phenol in the washing of
hands and also the use of sterile absorbable sutures (catgut) to reduce wound infection. Despite initial
resistance, his methods were rapidly adopted throughout Europe particularly by the military in the Franco-Prussian war. By 1878 ,in Germany, Robert Koch was using steam for sterilising surgical instruments and dressings.
In 1869 he returned to Edinburgh following the death of his father-in-law. In 1877 he was appointed to King's College London but as he was a Quaker this required him to convert to the Anglican faith. In 1883 he was created a baronet and
was made Baron Mister of Lyme Regis in 1897. He was on of the 12 original members of the Order of Merit. His wife died in 1892 and he retired from practice the following year. He was offered the Presidency of the Royal College of Surgeons in
1885 but declined. He served as President of the Royal Society from 1895 to 1900. He died on 10 February 1912 in Walmer, Kent.