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Being Lister: ethos and Victorian medical discourse
  1. J J Connor1,
  2. J T H Connor2
  1. 1
    Division of Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, Canada
  2. 2
    John Clinch Professor of Medical Humanities and History of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, Canada
  1. Jennifer J Connor, Division of Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada A1B 3V6; jennifer.connor{at}med.mun.ca

Abstract

Stylistic analysis and rhetorical theory are used in this study to inform our understanding of impediments to the successful uptake of a new medical idea. Through examination of the work of the Victorian surgeon Joseph Lister, who was described by one biographer as suffering from “stylistic ham-handedness”, the study provides insights into the difficulty that Lister had in explaining his theory of antiseptic surgery. Using three comparisons—Lister’s scientific style in public discourse with that of his students, and Lister’s scientific style in private discourse with those of both a surbordinate and a superior—the study suggests that the rhetorical concept of ethos played a major role in his communication difficulties. In this way, it presents a more nuanced perspective on modern presentations of “model” communications versus communication failures: that is, that problematic written discourse offers as useful a heuristic device as does exemplary discourse.

  • Joseph Lister
  • antiseptic surgery
  • communication
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Footnotes

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • i For the purposes of this discussion, we have used letters published in the biography written by Lister’s nephew, Sir Rickman John Godlee, who lived and trained with Lister for many years and also had access to his notebooks. Even if their representation deviates from the original document, these letters usefully demonstrate a contrast in style and register from Lister’s other writing.

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