JOSEPH LISTER 1827-1912 by Richard B. Fisher


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The 19th century saw rapid changes in medicine and surgery. First came anesthesia. Then the cellular theories of Virchow and Pasteur's germ theory. Lister seized upon Pasteur's findings as the rationale to support his lifelong work on antiseptics to control infection. The battle was hard fought. As late as the 1880s doctors still disputed the virtues of either antiseptics--aggressive countermeasures to kill germs--or asepsis, preventing infection by sterilization. Lister was a central figure who endured ridicule but who was eventually raised to the peerage and world-honored. His English biographer has written a meticulously detailed account of his life. Would that the life were more interesting! Lister turns out to be the very image of Victorian snob. Wellborn, Quaker, morally superior to most, stubborn, tactless, by turns indecisive, unpunctual, paranoid. Fisher suggests deep repression. There was an early nervous breakdown following a period of religious enthusiasm. There are vague hints of affections for men, and there is a childless marriage to a woman as pious as she was dedicated to Lister. It all makes for fairly unrelenting reading--work work work followed by long walks, taking the waters, bird-watching, and flower-pressing. Still one learns a lot about the rages and outrages of 19th century life. With less trivia (letters, dates, endless meetings and trips) and more incaution in dealing with the hero, the author might have produced a splendid stripped-down social and personal history. As it stands, it is a scholarly reference of merit in the history of science.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1977
Publisher: Stein & Day