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BOOK REVIEWS Joseph Lister, Father of Modern Surgery, by Rhoda Truax. Indianapolis, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1944. 287 pp. $3.50. A THOROUGHLY satisfactory biography of Joseph Lister (1827-1912), the Quaker surgeon, has never been written. That by his nephew, Rickman John Godlee, is authoritative, but it was written expressly for the medical profession who are all presumably familiar with the medical environment in which Lister developed. In any case, the earlier writer made no attempt to describe the background which the non-medical reader needs to appreciate properly the career of the founder of the modern science of antiseptic surgery. It is hard to realize that less than a century ago absolutely nothing was known as to the cause of infections and the prevention of gangrene. At about the time when Joseph Lister was four years old there appeared a work of fiction that was destined to exert a great influence on his career. In the book Rab and His Friends there was a description of an operation for cancer of the breast. That the operation was performed without anaesthesia need surprise no one, since its use had not yet become customary , but the fact that Rab, the patient's dog, was allowed to remain in the room during the operation is somewhat startling. The result of the operation was about what might have been expected. For some days the patient continued to improve, and then the inevitable gangrene set in, leading to a swift and painful death. Why did Alice Howgate have to die? This was the question upon which young Joseph Lister meditated during his school days at Hitchin and Tottenham, and later at University College in London. Eventually he found the answer, but it came not from the field of medicine but from chemistry. An obscure French chemist named Louis Pasteur had been investigating the failure of the grape crop and had performed some experiments that had led to two conclusions: first, that all decomposition and decay was due to the activity of single-celled bacteria, and second, that the generation of living matter never occurred spontaneously. Could it be possible that gangrene was caused by bacteria introduced into a wound at the time of operation? If so, it might be prevented by the use of antiseptic dressing. Phenol was being used at the sewage disposal plant at Carlisle to suppress the odor ; what would happen if phenol were applied to a compound fracture? To Carlisle Lister went, to study the action of phenol, and there became convinced that he was on the right track. When the way opened for him to treat a compound fracture with phenol the result was successful beyond his fondest hopes. But the attitude of the medical profession was one of open hostility. Naturally they did not wish any reflection on their cleanliness to go unanswered, and if any of Lister's patients had die4 either from gangrene or any other cause, he would have been charged with malpractice. But 91Vol. 34, Autumn 1945 92 BULLETIN OF FRIENDS HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION when it was necessary for Queen Victoria herself to undergo an operation, and -tyhen she selected Lister to perform it, which he did with complete success, the recognition of his theory by the medical world was assured. The function of a biography is to interpret the life and works of the hero, and in the book here being reviewed the author has stressed both phases equally. In it the reader can learn much of Lister's home life (he was one of seven children), of the friendship of the Lister and Gurney families, of Agnes Syme whom Joseph Lister married and with whom he traveled extensively on the continent to meet the leading physicians of Europe. The Syme family were not Friends, and Joseph expected to be disowned for marrying out of Meeting. On this point the author does not enlighten us, although in other biographies of Lister it is stated that he resigned from Friends and became a member of the Episcopal Church. Except for such slight defects this is a scholarly essay, and it is well worthy of a place in any collection of biographies, whether of medical...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1504
Print ISSN
0033-5053
Pages
pp. 91-92
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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