The Post Mortem on the Lister Centennial

Dr. Coleson is Professor of Economics at Spring Arbor College in Michigan.

Forgetting anniversaries can be embarrassing. This time, almost everybody’s face should be red, except mine. We just overlooked the centennial of one of the truly outstanding events in human his­tory. Now we’ll have to wait an­other hundred years to celebrate right. It’s the principle of the thing that bothers me, not just a teacher’s sadistic urge to flunk everyone for forgetting some date that I happened to remember.

One hundred and two years ago this month an unknown Scottish surgeon made one of those funda­mental discoveries of the ages, one to be ranked along with the discovery of fire, the wheel, the smelting of metals, electricity, and atomic energy. But for the work of Joseph Lister and other well-nigh forgotten benefactors of mankind, many of us would have died in infancy as millions of others have died over the millen­nia of human history and as mul­titudes continue to die in the backward areas of the world even today. Truly, it may be said that "never were so many indebted to so few for so much."

What makes the oversight par­ticularly exasperating is the fact that other anniversaries have been remembered. You will recall that in June of 1965 a popular maga­zine featured Napoleon on the sesquicentennial of Waterloo. Al­most everyone celebrated the vic­tory of Wellington and Blucher over the "Little Corporal," except the French who saved their fire­works for the nine-hundredth an­niversary of 1066 last fall. It seems that de Gaulle was more interested in William the Con­queror’s victory at Hastings than in one of Bonaparte’s few defeats.

Of course, the way to avoid for­getting those important anniver­saries is to plan ahead. Mark the calendar early and start getting ready for the celebration. I had been telling classes for several years that the centennial was com­ing. You know, "year after next" the hundredth anniversary will be upon us and the entire world will rise up in gratitude and pay hom­age to those pioneer "men against death"1 whose researches have saved millions of lives over the century. Imagine my disappoint­ment when August of 1965 rolled around with little visible recogni­tion that there was anything spe­cial about that month. I checked the date in the library and even consulted my family doctor. The former confirmed the correctness of my timing, but the latter had noted no special excitement in the medical journals or among the pro­fession. Evidently, they had for­gotten, too.

It is natural that we be selec­tive about what we choose to celebrate. Every day must be the cen­tennial of something or other. Some of these events, recent and remote, are noteworthy, too. For instance, 1964 was the nineteen-hundredth anniversary of Nero’s slum clearance project, prelude to urban renewal at Rome — and Nero didn’t have to pay the fiddler since he furnished the music him­self. Whatever one may think of the ancient worthies and rascals, clearly we cannot remember all of their doings. But why we choose to remember some and forget others is a mystery. And certainly there are far-reaching consequences of these decisions as well as other choices we make. Edward Gib­bon warned us long ago:

… as long as mankind shall con­tinue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their ben­efactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most ex­alted characters.²

"Equal time" for Benefactors of Mankind

Now I am not suggesting that we erase those rascals from our history books — Alexander, Nero, Napoleon, and a host of others —but simply that we give useful and respectable people equal time. Take my hero, Joseph Lister, for example. Here we have all the ele­ments of a good story, minus the sadistic and gruesome which should interest no one. His activ­ities may have saved more lives than some of those conquerors de­stroyed, which should give him a fair claim to fame. His is the clas­sic success story of how persistent effort triumphs over the apathy of the masses and the opposition of misguided but well-meaning people. He was a surgeon in those tragic days after the discovery of anesthesia in 1846 made surgery common because it stilled the cries of the patients but more deadly because fatal infections developed in the overwhelming majority of the incisions. Groping, he stum­bled upon the writings of a French chemist, one Louis Pas­teur, and surmised that wounds would heal without infection if those mysterious micro-organisms Pasteur had studied could be ex­cluded or killed. His methods were crude and unpleasant, but sound in principle, truly one of the few revolutionary developments in his­tory. No doubt, many now reading these lines owe him their very lives. The last century in surgery has seen but the refinement of his technique. As Dr. Victor Robinson says, "Joseph Lister’s manifold labors may be read in the volumes of his Collected Papers, but his lifework is summed up in a phrase: he made surgery clean."3 In our preoccupation with detail and trivia today, we lose sight of the importance of sound principles as a point of departure.

Now, for the date of this epoch-making discovery. After a great amount of groping, Joseph Lister tried his new idea on a compound-fracture patient on August 12, 1865. Few days in human history have been so fateful for mankind or so unnoticed then and now. His method was bewilderingly simple. He just sterilized his instruments with carbolic acid and had it sprayed over the incision as he operated. The standard treatment for compound fractures with open wounds back then was immediate amputation, which proved fatal in many cases. Lister saved not only the patient’s limb, but perhaps al­so his life. Other operations in the ensuing months were equally suc­cessful.

Slow Acceptance of New Ideas

Lister should have been hailed forthwith as the greatest surgeon of all time. But the doctors, like the rest of us, were reluctant to change their ways. For years they had prided themselves on their dirty operating coats. The filthier the better, since a great accumula­tion of dried pus and blood indicat­ed a wide practice. But their pa­tients died up to a hundred per cent. Indeed, a famous surgeon of the time once remarked that an English soldier on the field of Waterloo stood a better chance than a patient — let us say victim — on an operating table in a hos­pital. It was even urged back then that hospitals be abolished since they were so obviously fatal. Lis­ter sought to change all this and produced evidence that he was more than another charlatan or quack of which there had been too many already. But it took time for his ideas to catch on. We human beings have a right to be cautious since we have lost our way on many a detour over the ages. But it does seem that we might catch on faster than we do at times.

The next crucial date in the sanitary revolution of a century ago was the meeting of the British Medical Association in August of 1867 — a centennial we might yet commemorate in lieu of the one we forgot August 12 a couple of years ago. Lister read the only pa­per worth hearing on August 9, but his contemporaries did not ap­preciate the fact until long afterward. Lister was not dramatic, be­ing by no means an orator; and the other surgeons gave him a rough time in the question-and­-answer period following his pre­sentation. But his ideas won out and rather speedily, too, once the movement got under way.

We cannot help the fact that our fathers caught on slowly, but we could remedy our own pervert­ed sense of values that glorifies the vicious and forgets the con­structive. One could rewrite the history book with profit, emphasiz­ing the beneficial, and passing briefly over the tragedies of the ages. And I would like to nominate for honors a host of solid citizens who worked for the betterment of mankind in medicine, in industry, in agriculture, and wherever else men and women have labored, however humbly.

Some Anniversaries for the Future

Since we forgot the great surgi­cal centennial, perhaps it would be well to sit down with the his­tory book and the calendar to start planning ahead for the next notable anniversary. May I sug­gest a "double-header" coming up year after next: the bicentennial of the patenting of Richard Ark­wright’s "automated" spinning wheel and James Watt’s improved steam engine. Here we have the genesis of the industrial age with its greater abundance for all. Like the medical revolution of a hun­dred years ago, industrialization has been a great boon to a lot of rather ungrateful people who take their blessings for granted and forget how their improved stand­ard of living became possible. Worse still, these benefactors of mankind are not simply forgotten as was Joseph Lister. The good they have done is disregarded, and the "growing pains" of the new industrial era they helped to usher in are magnified out of all proportion and even distorted to make over these captains of indus­try into deep-dyed villains. And strangely, all of this is done by intellectuals who enjoy all the fruits of those pioneering efforts and clamor for more, while they continue to vilify those who made it possible. Certainly, it would be appropriate as part of the bicen­tennial celebration for Watt and Arkwright that we set the record straight on the so-called "Indus­trial Revolution." As an introduc­tion to this study, may I recom­mend the book, Capitalism and the Historians, edited by F. A. Hayek.4 It is about time we cor­rected some of these misconcep­tions.

Be Ready for 1976!

For those who like to plan a little farther than just two years ahead, may I point out that 1976 will soon be upon us. This is also a double bicentennial, since this is the anniversary of both the Dec­laration of Independence and the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Rather inter­estingly, there are already some hardy souls getting set to cele­brate the latter. One such organi­zation is the "Invisible Hand So­ciety," recently formed for this purpose.

With Adam Smith, there is al­so some correcting to do, as his disciples are so painfully aware. Perhaps a story will best illustrate the problem. Several years ago I decided to quit taking my Wealth of Nations in small, secondhand doses; so I set out to buy a copy of Smith’s masterpiece for myself. I went to the local bookstore but the book was not to be found, al­though Marx’s Capital was quite conspicuous. A few weeks later I tried again in a much larger city. Still no Smith, but there was Marx once more. Some months later I looked through the big bookstore of one of the state universities with the same luck. Always there was Marx but never Adam Smith. Finally, I ordered a secondhand copy through a bookstore in Chi-cago.5 It would appear that Adam Smith’s ideas have been as com­pletely mislaid.

The prominence of Das Kapital suggests still another anniversary. In 1983 is another twin centen­nial: the death of Karl Marx and the birth of John Maynard Keynes. Now, if present trends continue, it is quite possible that communism may complete the con­quest of the world by force of arms and subversion by 1983 —just in time for Orwell’s 1984. But I have faith that this will never happen. There are powerful fac­tors working against communism today, such as mass disillusion­ment around the world, particular­ly in those countries that have had firsthand experience with the vicious system. Communism has promised much but has delivered little, except terror, poverty, star­vation, and death. Quoting Lin­coln, "You can’t fool all the people all the time"; and a host of people have long since caught on. If we would just clear our own minds so that we could present a construc­tive alternative, this could be the psychological moment for a great revival of freedom.



1 This is the title of a book by Paul de Kruif, better known for his Microbe Hunters.

2 Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library edition), Vol. I, p. 6.

3 Victor Robinson, The Story of Med­icine, p. 423.

4 University of Chicago Press. Also available from the Foundation for Eco­nomic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, $1.75.

5 I note, with pleasure, that several inexpensive editions are again in print today. The Foundation for Economic Education stocks the 2-volume Dutton edition, at $4.50.