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A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body

16 March 1867 marks 150 years since Joseph Lister published his findings on reducing infection risk

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore our understanding of influences on our attitudes and actions (SEAL theme: Self-awareness).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and three readers.


Leader: In my experience, the smallest cut can cause enormous pain. A scratch, a badly bitten fingernail or a splinter thats not dealt with can easily go septic, and that results in a throbbing pain that seems to affect every other part of the body. Im sure most of us have shared that experience. The pain happens because any cut to the skin enables germs to get in and those germs are the cause of painful infection.

Over the centuries, medical professionals have deliberately cut the skin of their patients so that they can operate on them. We call this technique ‘surgery’. However, a huge problem in the past was that many patients, having survived the trauma of the surgery itself, died later from infections that developed. These infections used to be known as ‘ward fever. Opening the skin to perform a medical procedure also opened the body to the germs in its surroundings.

Reader 1: Joseph Lister was a professor of surgery at the University of Glasgow in the mid-nineteenth century. He saw many cases of ward fever, and started to explore ways of eradicating it. Following research by other scientists in mainland Europe, he started to use carbolic acid on the dressings applied to a wound after surgery. He found that this kept the germs at bay and patients recovered. He also invented a machine that sprayed a fine mist of carbolic acid around the operating table during an operation, creating a clean environment. In addition, he taught his surgeons to wash their hands and instruments in a mild solution of carbolic acid between operations. The results of these new procedures were impressive, with deaths from ward fever in the hospitals under his direction dropping dramatically.

Reader 2: Listers procedures sound like common sense to us, but, during the nineteenth century, many surgeons took pride in wearing stained, unwashed operating gowns because they regarded it as a sign of their experience. It was only 150 years ago, on 16 March 1867, that Lister published the results of his findings and the medical profession sat up and took note.

Time for reflection

Leader: Infection is still rife today, but Im not just talking here of the superbugs that have caused hospital wards to be closed. If we consider ‘infection’ in its wider sense as anything that causes harm to us, that makes us less of a person than we have the potential to be, there are many sources of infection around us.

Reader 1: Some of us are depressed and have a low sense of self-worth.

Reader 2: Some of us have a poor body image.

Reader 3: Some of us are struggling to keep up with the expectations placed on us by parents and teachers.

Reader 1: Some of us are jealous of what others have that we dont.

Reader 2: Some of us crave genuine love and affection.

Reader 3: Some of us are addicted, whether it be to alcohol, drugs, porn or gambling.

Leader: Id class all of these as ‘infections’. They attack our health. Some result in unhealthy bodies, others in unhealthy minds. They create unhealthy habits and are contagious because they have an effect on our friends and families. We have a problem here that needs addressing, so maybe we should consider applying Joseph Lister’s techniques to reduce infection.

Reader 3: Lister placed a barrier between the open wound and the germs in the air. We need to consider the sources of the mental, relational and physical infections that affect us all. For example, if the source is the magazines that you read, maybe it would be helpful to stop reading them. If its the websites you look at, maybe it would be useful to put a block on them. If its the friendship group you belong to, maybe it would be useful to look for new friends, even though it will be hard. Placing a barrier between yourself and the source of ‘infection’ is a necessary starting point.

Reader 1: Lister also emphasized the importance of a sterile environment. St Paul gave some good advice to friends of his who lived in a place called Philippi. He told them to fill their minds with those things that are good, just, true, lovely and honourable - in other words, the positive things in life. If you fill your life with activities, images and people who are positive and healthy, there will be little room for ‘infections’ to encroach. There are other magazines to enjoy, other websites to explore, other friends to mix with and other groups and teams to become part of.

Reader 2: Lister taught his staff to clean themselves after contact with infection. Even with the best of intentions, we cant avoid the temptations around us all the time. What we can do, however, is admit our failing, turn around and continue to press on in the direction we were aiming for. Christians call this confession and repentance.

Leader: I suspect that some of these issues have struck a chord with some of you. Remember that if you ever have any difficulties, there are always people here in school to whom you can talk. (You may wish to give details of the counselling options available within your school community.)

Dear Lord,
Thank you for all that is good, true and positive in the world around us.
Remind us of these things when we get sucked into unhealthy habits.
May we learn to live lives that are healthy and keep minds that are healthy, too.

Publication date: March 2017   (Vol.19 No.3)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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