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Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue

Joseph Lister, Baron Lister (1827-1912), Surgeon and founder of a system of antiseptic surgery

Surgeon and founder of a system of antiseptic surgery; born 5 April 1827, at Upton House, West Ham, Essex, son of Joseph Jackson Lister, inventor of microscope lenses. Entered University College London 1844; BA 1847, MB 1852; held surgical and teaching posts in Edinburgh 1853–60; married Agnes Syme 1856; elected FRS 1860; professor of clinical surgery, University of Glasgow 1860–69, a period which saw Lister’s first surgical use of carbolic acid (1865) and publications in the Lancet on a new system of antiseptic surgery (1867); professor of clinical surgery, University of Edinburgh 1869–77, where he flourished; returned south when appointed professor of clinical surgery, King’s College London 1877; baronet 1883; retired from King’s College 1892; widowed 1893; elected president of the Royal Society 1895, only the second surgeon to be elected; created Baron Lister of Lyme Regis 1897, first in medical profession to join House of Lords; OM and PC 1902; left London 1908; died (childless) 10 February 1912 at Park House, Walmer, Kent; according to the Lancet ‘he was unquestionably the greatest Englishman of his century’. [1]

In his prime, around the 1860s, Lister’s

features commonly had a placid, contemplative, serious expression which easily relaxed into a smile in the course of conversation. In personal appearance he was of average height and somewhat slender build; he did not use eyeglasses; his hair, which was abundant and dark in colour, was generally worn rather long; except for small whiskers he was clean-shaven. Both in manner and in speech he was uniformly gentle, sympathetic, and totally free from abruptness, affectation, or self-assertion. [2]

The poet William Ernest Henley, a patient at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary 1873–5, described Lister’s appearance on the hospital rounds, in a sonnet that included these lines:

His brow spreads large and placid, and his eye,
Is deep and bright, with steady looks that still.
Soft lines of tranquil thought his face fulfill –
His face at once benign and proud and shy… [3]


St Clair Thomson, a medical student at King’s College London and later Lister’s house surgeon and friend, described him thus: ‘He was nearly six feet in height, upright, well knit, compactly built, deep chested. His bearing was dignified and his manner always restrained, ever courteous and constantly considerate. His voice was soft and musical, but a trifling hesitation in his speech had persisted from childhood.’ [4]

Carol Blackett-Ord

Footnotesback to top

1) ‘Lord Lister O.M.’, Lancet, 17 Feb. 1912, p.440 (obits).
2) ‘Lord Lister O.M.’, Lancet, 17 Feb. 1912, pp.439–40.
3) Henley 1901.
4) Thomson 1936, p.19.

Referencesback to top

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