Joseph Lister’s inaugural lecture re-enacted at King’s College after 136 years

We are very pleased to republish here some excerpts of an article written by Ben Chisnall, which was first published for the British Medical Journal (BMJ 2013;347:f6075). Ben is former manager of the Centre for the Humanities & Health, and is now in his third year as a medical student at King’s College, London.

On 1 October 1877 Joseph Lister delivered his inaugural lecture as professor of clinical surgery at King’s College London. Lister came to King’s from Edinburgh, where he developed the ideas and methods of antiseptic surgery that he had first investigated in Glasgow. Lister’s methods, drawing on Pasteur’s principles of germs as the basis of contamination, had been enthusiastically received and adopted in Scotland and continental Europe. London’s medical and surgical establishment was, however, yet to be fully convinced.

Joseph Lister - Wellcome Library Collection
Joseph Lister – Wellcome Library Collection
Standing in a packed Great Hall at King’s, before an audience of surgeons, physicians, students, and scientists eager to hear of his famous methods from the man himself, Lister chose to speak not of surgical techniques, as would be expected, but about something entirely different: his studies of fermentation […] This month Lister’s inaugural lecture was re-enacted at King’s in its original setting. […] After last year’s conference at King’s entitled “Learning from Lister: antisepsis, safer surgery and global health,” and to mark the centenary of Lister’s death, a special edition of Notes and Records of the Royal Society has been published, collating major papers from the conference. The publication constitutes a scholarly re-evaluation of Lister’s legacy, its implications for antisepsis and surgical innovation, and the means and patterns by which medical ideas and practices are disseminated and met with acceptance or rejection. The re-enactment was held by the Centre for the Humanities and Health at King’s to coincide with this publication and as a demonstration of the process of innovation and dissemination: how ideas that are today accepted as common knowledge could once be provocative, daring, and controversial. […] Lister concluded his lecture by stating his belief that through his experiments he had taken “one sure step” from “the region of speculation and loose statement into the domain of precise and definite knowledge”—a reminder that, through good basic science and expert clinical practice, innovation can flourish and medicine can change for the better.

The full article can be accessed here.
You can contact Ben Chisnall at

A full video recording of the lecture re-enactment will be available soon on the KCL Centre for the Humanities and Health website .


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