10 Intriguing Facts About Joseph Lister

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Surgical patients once routinely died from their operations, because physicians believed that bad air—not bacteria—was responsible for their post-operative infections. This changed in the 19th century with a British physician named Joseph Lister (1827-1912), who dedicated his life to learning what caused infections and how to prevent them.

Get to know the quiet, studious doctor who is often called “the father of modern surgery"—and who has both a mountain and a popular mouthwash brand named after him.

1. Joseph Lister's father helped usher in the modern microscope—and his son's future career.

As a child, Lister’s scientific curiosity was encouraged by his father, Joseph Jackson Lister, who was an English wine merchant and amateur scientist. The elder Lister's tinkering with early microscopes paved the way for today’s modern achromatic (non-color distorting) microscope—an accomplishment that would admit him to the Royal Society, the world’s oldest national scientific society.

In addition to dissecting small creatures, articulating their skeletons, and sketching the remains, the younger Lister—who knew from an early age that he wanted to be a surgeon—spent much of his childhood using his father's microscopes to examine specimens. He would rely on microscopes throughout his scientific career, using them to research the action of muscles in the skin and the eye, how blood coagulated, and how blood vessels reacted during an infection’s early stages.

2. Joseph Lister was English, but he spent most of his career in Scotland.

Lister was born in the village of Upton, in Essex, England, and studied at University College, London. After graduating and working as a house surgeon at University College Hospital—where he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons—the young doctor moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, to work as renowned surgeon James Syme's assistant at the Royal Infirmary [PDF].

The move was supposed to be temporary, but Lister ended up finding both professional and personal success in Scotland: He married Syme’s daughter, Agnes, and was eventually appointed Regius Professor of Surgery at the University of Glasgow.

3. Joseph Lister thought about becoming a priest instead of a doctor.

Like many young professionals, Lister sometimes had doubts about his career path. The physician received a devout Quaker upbringing, and at one point he considered becoming a priest instead of a surgeon. However, Lister’s father encouraged him to stay in medicine and serve God by helping the sick. Lister would ultimately leave the Quaker faith to marry Agnes Syme, who belonged to the Scottish Episcopal Church.

4. Joseph Lister struggled with depression.

While away at school, Lister came down with a mild case of smallpox. He recovered, but the health scare—along with the death of his older brother, who succumbed to a brain tumor—pushed him into a deep depression. The student left school in London and traveled around Britain and Europe for a year or so before returning to the university and pursuing his medical studies with renewed vigor.

5. Joseph Lister is the reason we sterilize wounds.

When Lister was a surgeon, bloodstained bed linens and lab coats weren’t washed, and surgical instruments were rarely cleaned. And even though Italian physician Fracastoro of Verona had theorized in 1546 that small germs could cause contagious diseases, nobody thought they had anything to do with wound infections. Instead, many surgeons believed that miasmas—or bad air—emanating from the wound itself were responsible.

Lister, however, trusted his own observations. As a young doctor-in-training, he noted that some wounds healed when they were cleaned and damaged tissue was removed. However, the problem of infection continued to plague Lister through his career until he encountered the work of French scientist Louis Pasteur, who discovered that microbes could cause infection.

Intrigued, Lister began using a formula of diluted carbolic acid—a coal-tar derivative used to kill parasites found in sewage—to sterilize medical instruments and wash his hands. He also applied this mixture to bandages, and sprayed carbolic acid in operating rooms where surgeries resulted in high mortality. He reported the results at a meeting of the British Medical Association in 1867: "my wards […] have completely changed their character, so that during the last nine months not a single instance of [blood poisoning], hospital gangrene, or erysipelas has occurred in them.”

While some physicians balked at his techniques, claiming they wasted time and money, Lister’s approach caught on. Soon, physicians in Germany, the U.S., France, and Britain were following his lead. As for Pasteur and Lister, the two scientists corresponded, and would finally meet in person for the first time in 1878. And at Pasteur's 70th birthday celebration in 1892, Lister gave a praise-filled speech about the life-saving benefits of Pasteur's research.

6. He was kind to patients.

Lister referred to some patients as "this poor man" or "this good woman" (he refused to call them "cases"), and he always tried to keep them calm and comfortable pre-and post-operation. Once, the surgeon even sewed a doll's missing leg back into place for a young charge.

7. He treated Queen Victoria ...

Lister's most famous patient was Queen Victoria: In 1871, the surgeon was called to the monarch's estate in the Scottish Highlands after the queen sprouted an orange-sized abscess in her armpit. Armed with carbolic acid, Lister lanced the mass, drained its pus, and dressed and treated the wound to prevent infection—but at one point, he accidentally sprayed his disinfectant in the displeased queen's face.

Lister would later joke to his medical students, "Gentlemen, I am the only man who has ever stuck a knife into the queen!"

8. ... who later made him a baron.

As Lister's fame grew, Queen Victoria made him a baronet in 1883. Later, she elevated the physician to baron status. Lister would remain beloved among members of the royal family, including Edward VII, who was diagnosed with appendicitis two days before his royal coronation in 1902. His doctors consulted Lister before performing a successful surgery, and the king made sure to thank him once he was crowned. "I know that if it had not been for you and your work, I wouldn’t be sitting here today," the monarch told Lister.

9. Listerine mouthwash is—surprise!—named after Joseph Lister.

Even if you didn’t learn about Lister in science class, you’ve probably used his namesake formula: Listerine. The popular mouthwash brand—which is promoted with the slogan "Kills germs that cause bad breath"—was originally invented in 1879 by American physician Joseph Lawrence. Lawrence had created the green liquid as an alcohol-based surgical antiseptic, and he fittingly named the product after his pioneering predecessor. However, Listerine would ultimately be marketed for oral hygiene purposes, after first being peddled as a cigarette additive, a cure for the common cold, a dandruff treatment, and more.

10. Lister also has a mountain named after him.

Lister has public monuments and hospitals dedicated to him around the world, but if you travel to Antarctica, you may also encounter a massive mountain named in his honor: At around 13,200 feet, Mount Lister is the highest point in the Royal Society Range, a mountain range in Victoria Land, Antarctica, that was first explored by the British during the Discovery Expedition from 1901 to 1904. This expedition was organized by the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society—and since Lister was the Royal Society’s president from 1895 to 1900, the range’s most majestic peak was named after him.

Additional Source: The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance? At Least One Scientist Thinks So

Getty Images
Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.

According to National Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.

If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.

Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.

King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.

While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.

[h/t National Geographic]

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

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