Frederick Spencer Lister studied medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College, London, and in 1905 qualified as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (MRCS Eng.) and a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London (LRCP). After a short period as medical officer on a cable ship in the Atlantic Ocean he came to South Africa and practised for a short time in Nottingham Road, KwaZulu-Natal. In 1907 he took up an appointment as medical officer at the Premier Diamond Mine, where he established a clinical pathological laboratory. From there he went to the Witwatersrand as medical officer on the Durban and Roodepoort Deep and Bantjes gold mines. During the years from 1907 he developed an interest in the bacteriological diseases affecting mine workers, particularly pneumonia.
From 1912 to 1914 Lister worked sporadically at the newly established South African Institute for Medical Research in Johannesburg, assisting the British bacteriologist Sir Almroth Wright* in his studies on pneumonia in mine workers. He extended Wright's pioneering work in immunising against the disease by discovering different serological types of pneumococci on the Witwatersrand, on which he based the development of his pneumococcal vaccines. His first publication at the institute dealt with 'Specific serological reactions with pneumococci from different sources' (South African Institute for Medical Research, Memoir No. 2, 1913). In 1915, during World War I (1914-1918) he was appointed as research scholar in pneumonia at the institute and two years later became research bacteriologist. Further work by him on experimental pneumonia vaccines was published in the Publications of the SAIMR No. 8 (1916) and No. 10 (1917). The effectiveness of the vaccines he developed remained controversial, in part because of the drastic reduction of the most prevalent types of the disease, perhaps as a result of large scale inoculations, and their replacement by more and more new types. In recognition of his work he was honoured as a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) by the British government in 1920.
In 1917 Lister began a serological study of cerebrospinal meningitis in mineworkers. His results were published in the Medical Journal of South Africa in 1921 and 1923. During the influenza epidemic in 1918 he also investigated this disease in collaboration with Dr Edward Taylor*, publishing the results in the Publications of the SAIMR No. 12 (1919) and in the South African Medical Record (1922). His experiments were aimed at finding an unfilterable virus causing the disease, but the results were equivocal.
In July 1926 Lister succeeded Dr Wilfred Watkins-Pitchford* as Director of the South African Institute for Medical Research, a post he held to his death in 1939. He proved to be a good administrator and a man of unusual ability with an extensive knowledge of the diseases prevalent in South Africa. He was also appointed as honorary professor of pathology and bacteriology at the University of the Witwatersrand from 1926 to his death, and served on the Union Council of Public Health, the Leprosy Advisory Board, the Research Grant Board, and the council of the Medical Association of South Africa, and was president of the Witwatersrand Branch of the British Medical Association.
Lister was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1928. He became a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1918 and in 1921 was awarded the association's South Africa Medal (gold). He served on the association's council during 1926-1927. In 1924 he was president of the Associated Scientific and Technical Societies of South Africa and in 1929 was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree by the University of Cape Town.
In 1912 he married Alice Jeanette Baker, with whom he had a son and a daughter. After her death in June 1919 he married Ruby May Johnston, with whom he also had a son and a daughter. He has been described as quiet and unassuming, yet having an air of authority that commanded respect (Gear, 1979).