Our Artist in Residence “meets” Joseph Lister

Our Artist-in-Residence, Marianne MacRae writes about her introduction to Joseph Lister and her role at the College.

I took up my position as Artist-in-Residence at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow in June and have spent the last month getting a little better acquainted with Joseph Lister. Having come here with only a relatively vague idea of what Lister did to earn him his position as “the father of modern surgery”, I’ve been really keen to read and absorb as many details of his work as possible before I get down to the real “artistry” of the residency.

Joseph Lister

Joseph Lister: the man, the legend

In brief, and for anyone who isn’t aware, Joseph Lister pioneered antiseptic surgery back in the mid-1860s, aka when surgery was the next best thing to a death sentence. Following Louis Pasteur’s pasteurisation experiments, Lister made the connection between germ theory and infection rates in compound fractures (i.e. broken bones that pierce the skin, thus creating an entry point for bacteria). More than half of patients with compound fractures at the time died due to infection. He began testing carbolic acid as a potential solution to the problem, recognising its antiseptic properties after reading that it was used to treat sewage. His experiments were successful and he published his findings in 1867 in The Lancet, which I’ve read and I can tell you there is a lot of detailed pus in those articles, but all necessary in the name of ground-breaking medicine (wouldn’t advise eating, say, a custard tart right after reading though).

Lister promoted the use of antiseptic dressings, sterile surgical instruments and handwashing. His work revolutionised surgical practice and facilitated the aseptic method universally employed by surgeons nowadays. Listerine is also named after him. Overall, a top lad, I’m sure you’ll agree.

My role here
I’m currently doing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh (don’t hold it against me, Glasgow, I love you both equally), researching animal otherness in the work of Marianne Moore, D.H. Lawrence and Elizabeth Bishop, while also writing my own collection of poetry. So really nothing to do with revolutionary Victorian surgical practices…BUT it does involve a lot of close observation, analytical thinking and, to some degree, experimentation (with words etc.), which is…kinda the same? Hmm, maybe not. Well anyway, I’ll be writing poetry in response to my engagement with the heritage collection here at the college and running some workshops later in the year – more details of those in due course. All this will be specifically in relation to Lister’s time here in Glasgow, which plays an important role in his pioneering work, not least because it was at Glasgow Royal Infirmary that his initial tests on patients took place, while he was Professor of Surgery at Glasgow University.

Photo of notebooks

A poet’s accoutrements

What have I done so far?
It turns out tuning your mind in to a completely new field of study doesn’t happen quite as quickly as you might think. But here on day 10, I’ve got a few first draft poems that should be ready for human consumption soon, as well as a deeper knowledge of surgery…I mean, don’t hold me to it, but I’m pretty sure at this point, based on my reading of surgical techniques back in the day, I could perform a quick procedure to a Victorian standard. I would even wash my hands before and after, which is more than you could expect from many of Lister’s naysayers. (Please note: I will not be performing any surgical procedures as part of this residency.)

Logo of the College featured on the Lock Room carpet

Lock Room carpet pals

The Heritage team have kindly said I’m free to roam the rooms of the college and spend time getting to know the place a little better. So far my favourite is the Lock Room, which is a v. cosy wee library that has a bunch of Lister-related texts available for perusal. It also has, to my mind, the funkiest carpet (see above) though the tartan of the Alexandra Room is also quite impressive.

Lock Room

Lock Room

I’ve spent some time familiarising myself with some of the socio-historical factors that were pertinent at the time. I’ve been particularly taken with Thomas Annan’s photographs from the period, which document the horrendously impoverished conditions that the working class people of Glasgow were living in at around the same time Lister was making his discoveries. I’m currently working my way through a book called Midnight Scenes and Social Photographs: Being Sketches of Life in the Streets, Wynds, and Dens of the City of Glasgow (bit of a mouthful), which offers an account of life in the tenements. The writer, known only as “Shadow” (v. mysterious), is certainly not the most sensitive of documentarians and the people he describes are often dehumanised to a disgraceful degree. At the same time though, it offers an interesting insight into the lives of the poor, which are too often written out of history altogether. I’d really like bring these people back to life somehow, and will be working on a way to incorporate this in to the scope of the project.

Finally…
I’m really excited to be here! It’s amazing to be given the chance to write about such an interesting period of change in Scotland that had a worldwide resonance and recapitulated the way we approach not only medicine, but personal hygiene and sanitation. That we can divide the history of medical discoveries into “before Lister” and “after Lister” is a testament in itself, so I’ll be working really hard over the coming months to do his story artistic justice.

Joseph Lister, Glasgow and the Birth of Antiseptic Surgery

2017 marks 150 years since Joseph Lister published his ground-breaking article “Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery” in the medical journal, The Lancet. To mark this occasion our annual Goodall Symposium will be celebrating Joseph Lister and his outstanding contribution to antiseptic surgery.

There is, arguably, no more appropriate place to celebrate the beginnings of antiseptic surgery than in Glasgow as it was in Glasgow Royal Infirmary that Lister first started using carbolic as an antiseptic, heralding the beginnings of a surgical revolution.

Lister ward at Glasgow Royal Infirmary c.1900

Lister ward at Glasgow Royal Infirmary c.1900

Based on Louis Pasteur’s research into fermentation, Lister began covering wounds in dressings containing carbolic acid which was known to prevent putrefaction in substances of animal origin. His first attempt was a failure but with his second patient, an eleven year old boy, Lister succeeded. As part of the patients treatment, pure carbolic acid on calico was applied to all areas of the wound – the wound healed; there was no infection, no gangrene and so amputation was avoided.

Lister continued to expand his use of carbolic acid using a steam spray (pictured below) to spray the air in his operating theatre. He was particularly driven by his intense revulsion towards the conditions of the surgical rooms and wards at Glasgow Royal Infirmary and devoted his full attention to reducing cross infection. Poor sanitation in 19th century hospitals meant patients were at serious risk of contracting diseases such as pyaemia, gangrene and tetanus. Lister was constantly battling with the managers of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary over the poor conditions of the wards and in 1870 wrote a letter to the Lancet entitled On the effects of the antiseptic treatment upon the salubrity of a surgical hospital, where he described the wards at the Royal as “some of the most unhealthy in the Kingdom”. The wards had been built over cholera burial pits and were close to the pauper burial pits at Glasgow cathedral. Lister also stated that the wards had not been properly cleaned for three years and were dreadfully overcrowded.

A Lister carbolic spray c.1870

A Lister carbolic spray c.1870

Lister’s success with antiseptic procedures revolutionised the treatment of disease and injuries.

Join us to celebrate 150 years of safer surgery!

Lister continues to be an inspiration to many of today’s doctors and surgeons and we are delighted to welcome Mr Pankaj Chandak, Specialist Registrar in Transplant Surgery at Guy’s, St Thomas’ and Great Ormond Street Hospitals and Research Fellow at Kings College London, to deliver the Goodall Lecture. Mr Chandak is passionate about Lister’s achievements and his legacy in surgical safety, linking the innovations of the 1860s with today’s developments in 3-D printing, robotics and perfusion machines. You can see more of Mr Chandak here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKUIvt9DI_Q

Setting the context of Lister’s 1867 article is Mr David Hamilton, transplant surgeon, medical historian, and author of the classic text The Healers: a History of Medicine in Scotland.

Our Goodall Symposium takes place on the 15th June 2017.
Time: 7pm (refreshments from 6:30pm)
Price: Free
To book contact library@rcpsg.ac.uk or call 0141 221 6072.

Our Goodall Symposium is part of the Glasgow Science Festival 2017.

Flyer advertising the Goodal Symposium