“Experts”: American Surgeons Refuse to Accept Lister and the Germ Theory

For over a decade many leading British surgeons failed to recognize the merit of the antiseptic system, and much acrimonious criticism was directed at Lister and his method. When he visited the United States in 1876 to deliver an address at the International Medical Congress in Philadelphia, he was not received with any enthusiasm. The Americans were slow to accept Listerism, and as late as the meeting of the American Surgical Association in 1882, the Lancet reported that “Anti-Listerians were in the majority; . . . they relied for support upon the statements of others. . . . Surely it is too late in the day (for them) to contest the truth of the germ theory.” [152] Levi Cooper Lane, who began his surgical career prior to Listerism, never fully accommodated to the restrictions imposed by the antiseptic and aseptic methods and gave as the reason: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” [153]

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Volume 177, Issue 2, Pages 457-460 (February 2007)


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Ignorance is Bliss: The Listerian Revolution and Education of American Surgeons

Harry W. HerrCorresponding Author Informationemail address

Received 13 June 2006

Purpose

Joseph Lister introduced antiseptic surgery in 1867. American surgeons, entrenched in the old ways of 19th century medicine, failed to adopt Lister’s methods.

Materials and Methods

Examples of the hubris and arrogant thinking displayed by early American surgeons are best shown by Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, and by the death of President James Garfield.

Results

Samuel Gross, preeminent American surgeon in 1875 boldly revealed in The Gross Clinic, and the team of distinguished surgeons using outdated methods caring for Garfield in 1881, illustrate American surgeons’ woeful disdain and disregard of sterile surgical methods.

Conclusions

Public outcry over the failure of some of America’s best surgeons led to widespread adoption of antiseptic surgery by the late 1880s and introduction of basic science into the medical education by the dawn of the new century.

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