1880, St. Louis, Missouri

Developed by a Missouri physician, Joseph Lawrence, Listerine was named in honor of Sir Joseph Lister, the nineteenth-century British surgeon who pioneered sanitary operating room procedures. Shortly after its debut in 1880, the product became one of American’s most successful and trust commercial mouthwashes and gargles.

In the 1860s, when the science of bacteriology was still in its infancy, Lister campaigned against the appalling medical hygiene of surgeons. They operated with bare hands and in street clothes, wearing shoes that had trekked over public roads and hospital corridors. They permitted spectators to gather around an operating table and observe surgery in progress. And as surgical dressings, they used pads of pressed sawdust, a waste product from mill floors. Although surgical instruments were washed in soapy water, they were not heat sterilized or chemically disinfected. In many hospitals, postoperative mortality was as high as 90 percent.

The majority of doctors and surgeons scoffed at the idea of antiseptic surgery that Lister insisted upon. When he addressed the Philadelphia medical congress in 1876, his idea received a lukewarm reception. But Lister’s view on germs impressed Dr. Joseph Lawrence. In his St. Louis laboratory, Lawrence developed an antibacterial liquid, which was manufactured locally by Lambert Pharmacal Company (later to become the drug giant Warner-Lambert.

In 1880, to give the product an antiseptic image, the company decided to use the name Sir Joseph Lister, at the time the focus of controversy on two continents.Surgeons, employing Lister’s antiseptic routine during surgery, reported decreased post-operative deaths resulting from infections, as well as higher survival rates. “Listerism” was being hotly debated in medical journals and popular press. Listerine arrived on the scene at the right time and bore the best possible name.

The mouthwash and gargle was alleged to “Kill Germs by Millions on Contact.” And Americans, by millions, purchased the product. Early advertisements pictured a bachelor, Herb, “an awfully nice fellow with some money,” who also, “Plays a swell game of bridge.” But Herb’s problem according to the copy, was that “he’s that way.”

A 1970s court ordered compelled Warner-Lambert to put out a disclaimer that Listerine could not prevent a cold or sore throat, or lessen its severity.