Lister and the reputation robbing historiansBMJ 2012; 344 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e2603 (Published 11 April 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e2603
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Almost at the end of the centenary of Joseph Lister's death, I'd like to join the toast proposed by Wendy Moore on the Journal some months ago (BMJ 2012;344:e2603) to the father of antiseptic surgery, by adding a brief historical note on the subject.
Probably, few medical and surgical people know that one of the earliest (if not the first) monumental tributes to Lister's accomplishments can still be found in the Italian capital.
In fact, since 1893 Joseph Lister is the central figure of a huge marble bas-relief which adorns the tympanum on the facade of the main surgical clinic of the Policlinico Umberto I, the main general hospital in Rome.
The monument was made on the initiative of Guido Baccelli, a leading figure of Italian medicine and politics in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, whose main concern since the 1870s was to endow the young Italian capital of a brand-new university hospital. The new hospital had to be built "in accordance with the most advanced hygienic principles" (BMJ 1888;1:305), not last, of course, the antiseptic concept in surgical facilities.
Baccelli (who was well known to the readers of BMJ, as can be easily seen by browsing the on-line historical archive of the Journal) met Lister in August 1890, during the momentous International Medical Congress of Berlin, and announced him that the decision about the monument had been taken a few months earlier. Lister always remembered with amusement the Mediterranean outgoing character of his Italian colleague: "on taking leave of me as we came away from Berlin, insisted on embracing me and kissing both my cheeks: which at any rate showed that he did not repent of having given me a place of such distinguished honour in the Institute at Rome"(Godlee, p.515).
Easier said than done. To obtain the 23 cubic metres of stone, to have it properly sculpted by the Italian artist Gaetano Russo and to lift the monument to its final position turned to be not an easy task. But at last, Baccelli succeded in keeping his promise and in March 1893 Joseph Lister - dressed in unlikely linen garments and surrounded by collaborators and nurses - began to monitor in effigy the ups and downs of Rome's surgery.
He still does, even if the building and the monument today appear a little deteriorated [Figures 1-2]. Neither the Italian medical and surgical community repent of having given him such an early and sincere tribute.
Sources: Godlee R.J. Lord Lister. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1924; Guido Baccelli's papers, Archivio di Stato, Roma.
Competing interests: No competing interests