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Learning from Lister

Committee minutes book

Opening from Committee minutes book showing two handwritten pagesCommittee of Council of King’s College London, 1877. King's College London Archives.

In 1877 Lister was reluctant to leave Edinburgh, and King's was not entirely ready for him. Lister's Edinburgh students had signed a spontaneous petition which testified to his 'indomitable energy' and to the irreparable loss which his departure would inflict on the medical school. Lister added lustre to the shining reputation of the schools at both Glasgow and Edinburgh, but King’s needed him more than its Scottish counterparts did or than Lister needed King’s.

At King’s the medical school was struggling to compete against seven other schools in the capital. Its student intake was falling. Lister’s ‘discovery’ of antiseptic surgery was controversial, partly because the scientific basis for it was not understood, and partly because carbolic acid could have unpleasant side-effects. Many surgeons had their own solutions to the problem of hospital cleanliness. However, his contribution to medical science could not be ignored.

Although Lister had been approached informally after the death of the previous professor of clinical surgery at King’s, Sir William Fergusson, on the basis of seniority the King’s surgeon John Wood was appointed. Both Fergusson and Wood opposed antiseptic surgery, but Wood later relented. However, Lister’s supporters at King’s rallied round, prompted by external allies such as Sir James Paget, and on 18 June 1877 the Council of King’s College appointed Lister to the newly created post of professor of clinical surgery.

As the opening shows, some of the College’s finest medical minds supported his appointment, even some who opposed Pasteur’s germ theory, such as the pioneering microscopist Lionel Smith Beale, a near-contemporary of Lister. Lister’s conditions for his appointment, which included two new surgical wards for his own purposes, obligatory attendance at his lectures and permission to retain his assistants from Edinburgh, were accepted.

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