February 10, 2021


February 10 (1910) is the anniversary of the death of Sir Joseph Lister, unwitting namesake of mouthwash. Rinse, gargle, and celebrate.

n. an antiseptic solution
–Oxford English Dictionary

Single women the world over rightfully curse the men who popularized the phrase “often a bridesmaid but never a bride,” many not realizing that it was part of a wildly successful advertising campaign for Listerine in the 1920s that warned young ladies that their bad breath might leave them old maids before their “tragic” thirtieth birthdays. Had he still been living, no one would have been cursing louder than eminent British surgeon Baron Joseph Lister who spent the last years of his life desperately trying to disassociate himself from a product that he neither invented nor endorsed.

Hospital wards in the mid-nineteenth century were stinking, seeping cesspools of infection. Windows were generally closed (limiting the influx of fresh air), surgeons did not wash their instruments or their hands prior to procedures, and wounds were rarely, if ever, flushed clean, providing literal breeding grounds for deadly microorganisms. When Joseph Lister was a young surgeon in the Male Accident Ward of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in the 1860s, more than half of his amputation patients died from sepsis, a bacterial wound infection.

Lister became fascinated with Louis Pasteur’s emerging theories on rot and fermentation and was convinced that his findings could be applied to medicine. At the time, Britain was more concerned with the cleanliness of its sewers than its hospitals, and carbolic acid had been used for years to improve the odor of its municipal muck. In 1865, Lister decided that what was good enough for British sewage was good enough for British patients, and he began swabbing his surgical tools and his wounds with carbolic acid. His mortality rate instantly dropped by 35 percent. He formalized his sterile operating procedures in 1867 (including forcing surgeons to wear clean gloves and wash their hands before and after surgeries), and they were quickly adopted worldwide.

Lister was made a baron in 1883 and enjoyed an extraordinarily successful medical career and respectable retirement until his death at the age of eighty-four in 1912. For his pioneering efforts, he became the namesake of the Royal Society’s prestigious Lister Medal and England’s Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine. He was commemorated on two postal stamps in 1965 and has public monuments in both London and Glasgow. Unfortunately, it is the now-ubiquitous Listerine that provides him with the most name recognition today.

In 1879, twelve years after Lister’s groundbreaking discoveries, Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert used Lister’s research to formulate a surgical antiseptic that was eventually recommended for dentists in 1895. Over the shy and unassuming surgeon’s objections, the Lambert Pharmacal company marketed the product as Listerine and were selling it as the first over-the-counter mouthwash by 1914. According to company legend, once the general manager first heard that there was a medical term for bad breath (halitosis), his ad men embarked on a spectacular 1920s campaign castigating the social disgrace of foul mouth odor and skyrocketing Lambert Pharmacal’s profits into the millions.

Thankfully, for his sake, Lister did not live to witness the decades of absurd and misleading Listerine marketing ploys that hawked his namesake as everything from a dandruff suppressant, deodorant, and sore throat remedy to gonorrhea treatment, aftershave, and floor cleaner.