Thom, Robert A. (American, 1915 - 1979)

Joseph Lister and the Use of Antiseptics

Reference Type:
between 1948 and 1964
Cause and control of infection elucidated by Pasteur inspired Joseph Lister’s (1827-1912) development of antiseptic technique in surgery in the 1860s. There were certain preludes to this medical practice—for example, in 1830 Oliver Wendell Homes stated that after treating an ill patient a doctor should wash his hands and change his clothing before delivering a baby. In 1864, Lister read about Louis Pasteur’s work on the theory of germs; the following year he succeeded in treating a compound fracture using carbolic acid. In 1870, when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, he published A Method of Antiseptic Treatment Applicable to Wounded Soldiers in the Present War. In Edinburgh as Chair of Clinical Surgery, Lister continued his research and introduced both doctors and nurses (in schools run by Florence Nightengale) to his new methods. While the nurses were more accepting, many of his physician and surgical colleagues were set in their ways, seeing his cleanliness as a waste of time. They did not like the carbolic spray, which burned hands and eyes, and also saw the effort required to clean tools and linens as a waste of time. The same was true on the other side of the Atlantic—famous Philadelphia surgeon Samuel Gross dismissed the antiseptic technique for manly American physicians, saying “Little faith in placed by any enlightened surgeon on this side of the Atlantic in the s0-called carbolic treatment of Lister.” Lister made other contributions to his field as well. After treating Queen Victoria, she asked him for help in ending experimentation on animals. While he felt such a practice was necessary, he did write letters calling for fair treatment of lab animals. In 1876 the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed. In spite of his travels throughout the United States and Europe sharing his discoveries, Lister was still not accepted in London. This changed when he opened a man’s knee to operate on a damaged patella, which his peers saw as an uncalled for risk, and succeeded. It became a kind of signature operation for him, and in 1883 he presented six successful cases at the London Medical Society. That year he was knighted by Queen Victoria and finally began to be recognized for his achievements. In this painting, Lister is shown at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary removing dressings from a compound fracture he had treated for six weeks with carbolic acid. That it healed without infection was revolutionary, opening up a whole new vista for the future of medicine. The painting is part of a series called “Great Moments in Medicine,” commissioned from Robert Thom by Parke, Davis, & Company between 1948 and 1964. Reproductions of the images were sent to physicians and pharmacies, appeared in national magazines and on calendars, and were used in educational publications. Thom was named by some the “Norman Rockwell” of medicine. Notes by Mariann Smith
Art of Medicine
History of Medicine
University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, MI