top of page
  • Writer's pictureSheldon Goodman

The Man Who Saved a King

It was supposed to be a time of jubilation.

An incredible amount of research had gone into planning his Coronation – the future King cast his eye over all preparations ‘in typical detail’ and with particular fervour. The last one was for his mother, Queen Victoria, conducted over 60 years before and the problem was that no one quite remembered how to prepare another.

NPG P1700(62a); King Edward VII possibly by W. & D. Downey

Possibly by W. & D. Downey, albumen print, 9 August 1902, © National Portrait Gallery 2016

Busily readying himself for his official crowning, early in June 1901 the Prince of Wales was taken ill with sudden abdominal pain and fever. Sir Francis Laking, his personal doctor, was called for but whatever the issue was, the problem had righted itself and the Prince of Wales and his future Queen attended a military event that evening.

By the next morning however, the pain had returned and would do so on and off for the next couple of weeks. Intense fevers and pain would felled poor Edward, who, despite the advice of his surgeon and associated medicine men, refused any further intervention –  especially so close to the biggest event in his life. Appendicitis had been unanimously diagnosed and his abdomen was filling with the waste products of a body fighting a serious infection.

Wanting to uphold his duty to his country, the king was met by a team of physicians who tried their best to convince him of the dire straits he would commit himself to if he did not admit their help. It fell to one man in particular to explain the severity of his health; after giving his explanation the future King declared ‘I shall go to the Abbey‘, which was immediately stamped on by Sir Frederick Treves, (friend and doctor of Joseph Merrick), who caustically replied:

‘Sire, then you shall go as corpse’. 

It may have been Treves that have pushed Edward into authorising the surgery which ultimately saved his life, but it was the giant of late 19th Century Joseph Lister who was called on to clarify the situation. After an unexpected visit back to Hampstead Cemetery, I finally found the grave of a man who, despite the quiet part of the Cemetery he’s been buried in, contributed something a great deal of us are very thankful for- surgery in antiseptic conditions.


by Barrauds Ltd, printed by Walker & Boutall, photogravure, circa 1896

Born in Essex in 1812, he was the second son of Joseph Jackson Lister, who was a pioneer of lenses in microscopes. A ‘precocious child’, he suffered terribly from a stammer and this may explain why he was home schooled until the age of 11. Fluent in French and German by the age of 14, his interest in Science seems to have been nurtured by his father. Despite having several artists in the family ancestrally, his interest in natural history seems to have been entirely spontaneous. His Quaker beliefs prevented him from studying at Oxford and Cambridge and like many others of the the time obtained a degree in Botany from UCL in 1847.

L0016923 A page from Lister's sketchbook, 1832-34

A page from Lister’s childhood sketchbook, pencil drawing 1832-34 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images House, zebra and a bird.

Entering the Royal College of Surgeons aged 26, he then began working at the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh Royal Infirmary under noted Scottish surgeon James Syme, whom Lister commented on having ‘a very original mind’. Becoming his dresser, Lister then settled there and married Syme’s daughter, Agnes.

While he was Professor of Surgery at the University of Glasgow, he closely followed the work of French Chemist and Microbiologist Louis Pasteur, who had proposed that disease and infection were the result of microbes, rather than the prevailing idea of Miasma. Pasteur’s work proposed rotting and fermentation food could happen under anaerobic conditions if microbes were present. Pasteur theorised there were three methods to get rid of the microbes that caused gangrene – heat, filtration or exposure to chemicals. Lister experimented with the third idea as this was the most practical for surgery.

A German man named Runge had developed creosote which was used to preserve wood for railway ties and ships and it seemed to stop the rotting of timbers. Lister created a solution of it and sprayed his instruments and dressings with it as a means of sterilisation. He was amazed to find that a patient of his with a broken leg, with treatment, exhibited no gangrene after four days of wearing the dressing and that after 6 weeks the bone had fused back together perfectly well. This was a breakthrough, despite the misgivings of a number of other medical men – former friend Sampson Gamgee (he who lent his surname to the dressing) who still maintained fresh air was the best environment for a wound to heal.

Besides antiseptic surgery, he also modified the technique of several operations and various technologies. Absorbable ligatures, the surgery on varicose veins and drainage tubes – used on the future Edward VII – all benefitted from his research.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 22.15.08

Lister happens to be one of only two surgeons recognised with a monument in the UK. This is at the top of Portland Place -sculpted by Sir Thomas Brock and unveiled by the President of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1924. © Google, 2016

From his home in Park Crescent he then retired to Park House in Walmer Kent, where he died, melancholy from his wife and his brother’s death several years earlier. It’s now a cosy little guest house, although I suspect when he lived there it wasn’t the pleasing shade of mint green that it is today. His body was given a triumphant funeral in Westminster Abbey and was even offered burial there; his executors however followed his wishes and like many of the people who ended up somewhere they shouldn’t have done so originally, was reunited with Agnes in a simple grave in Hampstead, amongst the likes of Sir Charles Wyndham and Marie Lloyd.


Plain and off the beaten track, you’d never know of his contribution to modern medicine from this tomb.

And no. He didn’t invent Listerine.

#EdwardVII #Appendix #Listerine #LordLister #Coronation #Monarchy #Royalty #Surgeon #HampsteadCemetery #Antiseptic

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page