Dr. Lister's Strange Idea


As dawn broke, 11-year-old Jaimie Greenless stumbled out his front door. He rubbed his bleary eyes and began his long walk to work. The streets were filled with others on their way to the shipyards or to one of the factories in Glasgow.

Just then Jaimie spotted a finely dressed man and woman walking ahead of him. What are they doing here in the slums? he wondered. He darted through the crowd and fell into step behind the elegant couple.

"Oh, Joseph," Jaimie heard the woman say. "My heart aches for these slum people. Why must they live in such squalor?"

"Industry is b-b-booming in Glasgow," said the man, stuttering slightly. "People are flocking here by the h-hundreds, looking for work. When there are too many workers, wages are low."

"Joseph, doesn't it seem odd that the university is located right in the middle of all this poverty? Maybe your appointment here is a sign that God wants you to take care of these people."

"P-perhaps you're right, Agnes," said the man. "I'm told working conditions are dangerous, causing many accidents."

Jaimie knew this was true. Last week James Wylie, a friend and fellow worker, had caught his arm between a pulley and a belt. His forearm was broken and the skin torn open. Everyone said the doctors would surely have to amputate the arm because infection would invade the open wound.

Jaimie shuddered now as he thought about it.

The man and woman paused, then turned and walked up the steps of a red-brick building. Jaimie knew it was the university hospital. He watched them go inside.

Suddenly he realized he'd been dawdling, and he dared not be late for work. He dashed into the street and into the path of a horseless, runaway cart. Instantly everything went black.

When Jaimie regained consciousness, he found himself lying on something hard. His left leg throbbed, and he was terrified.

A man approached him.

"H-hello, J-J-Jaimie. I'm Dr. Lister."

"I saw you earlier," said Jaimie. "Walking down the street with a woman."

Dr. Lister smiled. "Yes, that was my wife, Agnes. She frequently accompanies me to w-w-work to h-help me with my research."

"Am I in the hospital?" asked Jaimie.

Dr. Lister nodded. "In surgery. You have a broken leg, and the bone has torn through the skin. I'm going to put you to sleep with chloroform so you'll feel no pain. Then I will operate."

"Don't amputate!" cried Jaimie, thinking of his friend. "No, no, no. Please, Dr. Lister. No!"

"I don't b-believe that will be necessary, Jaimie. I have a plan. First I'll set your leg in a splint. Then I'll cleanse the wound and kill the microbes with carbolic acid. Next I'll cover it with bandages soaked in the same chemical. I believe this will prevent infection."

Jaimie began to cry. "But what if it doesn't work?"

"I believe that with the help of our Lord, my idea will succeed." Dr. Lister tousled Jaimie's hair. "Say your prayers, my boy, and you'll feel brave as a lion."

Jaimie smelled the chloroform only briefly; then once again everything went black.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

Waking from the anesthesia was the strangest experience Jaimie had ever had. His eyelids seemed too heavy to lift. He could hear voices, but he couldn't see who spoke.

"What's that strange smell?" asked one voice.

"Carbolic acid," said a second voice. "Dr. Lister soaked the bandages with it. He thinks that will stop infection."

"I've heard about this wild idea of Dr. Lister's," said the first voice. "It's foolishness."

"I agree," said the second voice. "But you and I are just medical students. We can only follow orders. But mark my words, that leg will have to be amputated."

Panic seized Jaimie. Dr. Lister lied to me, he thought. But before he could think anymore, he drifted back to sleep.

When Jaimie awoke again, he could lift his eyelids, and he saw his doctor standing by his bed. "You told me a fib, Dr. Lister. You are going to take off my leg."

"You're w-wrong, Jaimie. The medical students report that you have no fever. This is excellent news, because fever is one of the first signs of infection."

"You mean I'll be all right?"

"Yes, I believe you will. Rest now, and don't forget those prayers."

Time passed slowly for Jaimie. His parents visited infrequently because his father also worked long hours in the factory, and his mother had his five younger brothers and sisters to care for. So the lonely, worried boy waited and prayed.

On the fourth day Dr. Lister arrived to find Jaimie in tears.

"It hurts, Dr. Lister. It hurts worse than ever." Jaimie saw the doctor's face turn pale. "The acid isn't going to work, is it?"

"W-W-W-We'd better take a look," said Dr. Lister. "I'm going to r-remove the bandages."

He's stuttering more, Jaimie thought. That means he's worried.

"R-R-Remember, Jaimie boy. You're as b-b-brave as a lion," said Dr. Lister. He examined the wound, then smiled. "No wonder you have pain, Jaimie. The carbolic acid has burned your skin. I'll have to dilute the solution. But no real harm has been done. The important thing is that th-there's no infection. Our prayers have been answered."

Soon staff doctors and medical students crowded around Jaimie's bed.

"Amazing," said one doctor as he looked at Jaimie's leg. "I see none of the usual scarlet-colored inflammation. Quite remarkable."

"God's miracle," said another doctor.

"God's miracle?" asked still another. "My dear doctor, don't you realize that the Almighty has no place in medical science?"

"I disagree," said Dr. Lister. "I have no hesitation in s-saying that, in my opinion, there is no antagonism between the religion of Jesus Christ and any f-fact scientifically established."

Even though some of Dr. Lister's words were unfamiliar, Jaimie understood. My leg is not infected, thanks to Dr. Lister, he thought. How grateful I am for his faith in God.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

Six weeks and two days after his accident, Jaimie Greenless was discharged from the hospital with two whole legs. Walking down the streets of Glasgow once again, he always watched out for horse-drawn carts'and he thanked God again for having led him to the doctor with the brave ideas.

Susan C. Hall