John C. Chao, D.D.S.

Research Associate Professor, University at Buffalo, SUNY
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Ostrow School of Dentistry, USC

(626) 308-9104

News & Press

100th Anniversary of the Life of Joseph Lister: Father of Modern Surgery and Inspiration for the Creation of “Listerine.”

By John Chao, D.D.S., MAGD

Did you know that "Listerine" was named after Sir Joseph Lister, who first introduced antiseptic procedures to medical surgery? 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the life of Joseph Lister, one of the most celebrated physicians of the 19th and 20th centuries. Lister has been called the Father of Modern (antiseptic) Surgery. Prior to acceptance of Lister’s principles of antisepsis by his colleagues in Europe and England, death from infections after amputations was reported to be as high as 80%. After instituting antiseptic procedures (for example, hand washing) Lister’s adherents demonstrated by their antiseptic practice, that the fatality rate went down to almost 0% in some hospitals. Lister proved, with support from his friend and colleague, Louis Pasteur, that germs from contaminated hands and instruments caused the fatal infections after surgery and that amputations were for the most part not even necessary if antiseptic protocol had been followed. Lister insisted on strict adherence to hygienic, antiseptic techniques, which incidentally was practiced and advocated by another well-known contemporary, and nurse, Florence Nightingale.

Beginning in 1865, Lister used carbolic acid (phenol) to wash his hands, his instruments, and bandages and enforced the same discipline on his assistants and staff. Lister even sprayed the entire surgical theatre with carbolic acid to kill airborne germs. After accumulating data for more than a year, Lister published his findings in the medical journal, The Lancet, in 1867. Lister gave Louis Pasteur credit for the "germ theory" that made antiseptic theory and procedures possible, while Pasteur praised Lister for saving "suffering humanity."

Lister continued to make innovations and invented the “cat gut” ligature that dissolved in the body to replace silk sutures that would not. He also introduced the surgical drainage tube for treatment of infection. His first patient for this drainage procedure was no less a personage than Queen Victoria, for whom he had served as surgeon. These medical procedures impacted dentistry because they were soon adopted for dental surgery by the dental profession. Even in the face of such achievements and universal acclaim, he remained humble and lived with humility as he was a devout Christian. Lister passed away February 10, 1912, one hundred years ago.

During his lifetime Dr. Lister was the inspiration for the formulation of "Listerine" by Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert. Listerine was used as a surgical antiseptic; while in a diluted form of it was later introduced to dentists for oral care in 1895. Listerine became the first over-the-counter mouthwash sold in the United States in 1914. This mouthwash became a run-away success in the 1920’s when it was advertised as a solution for “chronic halitosis,” an obscure medical term for bad breath. The advertisements showed forlorn young men and women turned off by pining, prospective mates because of their rotten teeth and a smelly mouths. One critic lamented that "Listerine" (advertisements) did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis." In just seven years, the company’s revenues rose from $115,000 to more than $8 million (1920’s value.) Today, Listerine remains one of the better known mouthwashes and, as such, is a reminder to the public of the contribution of a great physician, Dr. Joseph Lister.

This is not an endorsement of the product Listerine. But you should brush and floss your teeth after every meal and you may elect to get additional protection against dental plaque by using a mouthwash recommended by your dentist. Remember, "Save your teeth, save your life." That may also include your love life!

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