01 May, 2009

From the minutes: Dr MacIntyre's report on our March 2009 meeting



Our Honorary President and Speaker for the evening, Professor Sir Roddy MacSween, was introduced by the President. Professor MacSween has been President of the Royal College of Pathologists and Chairman of the Joint Academy and is responsible for the standard textbook “MacSween’s Pathology of the Liver” – a distinguished career in both pathology and post-graduate training.

His interest in Lister as pathologist as well as surgeon was stimulated by the finding of a microscope with some pathological slides amongst Lister memorabilia dating from Lister’s Edinburgh period from 1853 to 1860. In fact review of the history of microscope and staining technique developments indicated that these could not have been the surgeons own work. Lister’s contact with the development of pathology went back to his father who had been responsible for developing achromatic lenses for microscopy in the 1820’s. As a student Lister had made microscopic examination of specimens. He continued this work in his early years in the College of Surgeons. However staining techniques and then paraffin embedding only developed respectively in the 1860’s and 1890’s.

Lister belonged to a Yorkshire Quaker family who moved to Essex where he had his upbringing. He trained in London at University College and the College of Surgeons before a move to Edinburgh initially for a brief clinical attachment which however led to a permanent post and marriage to the daughter of the then Professor of Surgery, Professor Syme. His work on antisepsis developed during Professorships in Glasgow during the 1860’s and Edinburgh the following decade. He then returned to London as Professor at King’s leading to Presidency of the British Association of Science and the Royal Society, knighthood and peerage. London surgeons were initially sceptical of his views sepsis prevention. It took a few years for him to be fully accepted.

Throughout his career he maintained an interest in pathology which was illustrated by remarkable detail in both drawing and clinical and pathological description of specimens – the latter neatly handwritten on foolscap sheets. Professor MacSween showed a number of examples of Lister’s drawings. These were largely done with aid of the camera lucida, a technique allowing superimposition of the image onto a drawing block to allow copying. Inevitably a lot of the early work prior to the advent of anaesthesia was of skin lesions – psoriasis, icthiosis, scurvy and melanoma. The illustrations covered both macroscopic appearance and cellular microscopy. With the development of anaesthesia more substantial specimens became available – examples included sarcoma and more uncertain cystic bone tumour. Most of these drawings and associated descriptions are housed in the Royal College of Surgeons. The overall impression was of the immense amount of work covered by Lord Lister and the remarkable detail of observation which characterised his approach – an impressive insight into an impressive figure.

Dr Philip Wilson, in proposing a vote of thanks, said he had struggled initially to find common points of interest with Lister but related readily to his non-conformist background and approach to work and teaching, and the remarkable detail of his observations. The President closed the evening by echoing our thanks to Professor MacSween and announcing the date of the Society’s Annual General Meeting – 23rd April.