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Posted on Dec 21, 2012

The Power of Determination that Changed Everything

The original version of this was posted on Leadership Couples.

If you’ve ever experienced major surgery, you should be grateful for the innovative work of Joseph and Agnes Lister. It’s likely why you are still alive.

Thanks to their determination, the Listers found a solution to infections from surgery. Today, the use of antisepsis procedures in medical operations is universal.

Understandably, all the credit for pioneering antiseptic surgery is given to Joseph Lister, the now famous British surgeon, who was later knighted by Queen Victoria and made a Baron. But he could not have succeeded without his wife and partner, Agnes.

A Leadership Couple

Joseph is described in the World Book Encyclopedia as “a gentle, shy, unassuming man, firm in his purpose because he humbly believed himself to be directed by God.” At age 26 he entered the Royal College of Surgeons, and went to Edinburgh, Scotland to spend time with Professor James Syme, considered the greatest teacher of surgery at that time.

Three years later Joseph married Syme’s daughter, Agnes.

Agnes was as much interested in medical research as Joseph. Even on their honeymoon, they spent 3 months visiting medical institutes in France and Germany. Agnes became Joseph’s partner in their laboratory, helping with experiments and writing up his notes.

Joseph and Agnes Lister were a leadership couple determined to make a difference in the field of medicine. And they succeeded.

As a differentiating value, Determination means resolute; strongly motivated to succeed; decided. This value was needed by the Listers for two reasons: A) to find a solution to the problem of infection, and B) overcome the ridicule and rejection of other doctors.

Pre-Modern Surgery

If you needed surgery in the mid-1800s, your chance of survival was 50%, at best. That’s if you had the good fortune of being in an established British hospital. In many hospitals throughout Europe the chance of survival was only 20%.

The reason? Infection caused by germs, which doctors did not yet understand.

Typical surgery had the patient lying on a table, just like in your kitchen. Your doctor, dressed in his normal street clothes, would pull his surgical instruments from a nearby drawer, placed there from the previous surgery.

Nothing was sterilized.

Even the doctor’s coat would be “stiff and glazed with blood.” Many surgeons of the time considered it a status symbol to be covered in blood from previous operations.

So when Joseph Lister introduced the concept of creating a sterile environment for surgeries, it was truly a revolutionary idea. It’s not surprising that other doctors scoffed at him.

Hard Work Leads to Breakthrough

The Listers’ research required considerable sacrifice and dedication. After Joseph completed a full workday in the hospital wards, he and his wife worked in a laboratory they had set up in their kitchen. What the Listers were looking for was a substance capable of killing microbes.

Finally, after studying the use of ‘carbolic acid’ to treat sewage, Joseph decided to try this in surgery.

On August 12, 1865 Joseph Lister used his new treatment on an 11-year-old boy with compound fractures. The boy had been run over by a cart. He would mostly likely have died using the old methods.

Using carbolic acid to clean the wound and all his instruments, the operation proved a success. Amazingly, after 4-days there was no infection. After 6-weeks, the boy was able to walk again.

Lister went on to treat 11 more patients with compound fractures, with none contracting infections. He then published his findings and presented to the British Medical Association.

But there was resistance from his peers.

From Struggles to Success

As with all revolutionary ideas, some doctors were unwilling to consider this new procedure. Others found it difficult to believe in germs. A few tried Lister’s procedures, but did so incorrectly and therefore failed to achieve the desired results. And last but not least, Lister’s method added to the expense involved in dressing the wounds.

At this point, the Listers could have quit. But thankfully, they continued to embrace the value of determination.

Over the next decade, the results were too overwhelming to ignore. Doctors from Denmark and Germany were the first to adopt the antisepsis procedure, with amazing results. In Munich, for example, the death rate from infection after surgery dropped from 80 per cent to almost zero.

By 1875, Joseph Lister was receiving international acclaim throughout Europe.

However, the majority of British doctors still misunderstood his work and therefore failed to accept its usefulness. It was not until 1877, when Joseph Lister was appointed Professor of Surgery at King’s College Hospital in London that he began to win over his British peers.

Finally by 1879, the principle of antiseptic surgery had gained almost universal acceptance.

Joseph went on to develop other innovative surgical techniques by applying his antiseptic principle. He even showed that suitably sterilized materials could be left inside the patient.

Together, the Listers truly changed the world.

So….. to all leadership couples burning the midnight oil at your kitchen table, resolute in solving problems and overcoming ridicule and rejection – remain determined. Your efforts are needed!


Are you a leadership couple with a vision? How do you stay resolute?

How can the value of determination help you make a significant difference?


Today’s value was selected from the “Determination-Focus” category, based on the e-book Developing Your Differentiating Value.




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