I’ve been following medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris on Instagram for months because, as I’ve probably mentioned before, I am fascinated by the bloody, brilliant history of trying to make people well (and how it frequently went awry). When I saw her book, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine, listed on NetGalley, I leapt to request it. The Butchering Art is full of the kind of medical history that I find perfectly engrossing (heh) because it’s written in clear, honest language with plenty of case histories, and thoroughly documented from primary sources.
Fitzharris begins her book with surgeon Robert Liston performing an amputation using the newest medical innovation: ether. Liston had trained as a surgeon in the years when speed was the best attribute one could have. Liston was able, at the height of his career, to remove arms and legs in a matter of minutes. Ether allowed surgeons to take their time and perform more complicated procedures. Unfortunately, because ether encouraged surgeons to cut more often, the rate of hospital infections soared. Most surgeons—according to this very credible account—shrugged off infection as inevitable. The ones who were willing to experiment were usually reluctant to believe in the new germ theory of disease and would hare off in all sorts of wrong directions. As Fitzharris frequently points out, a lot of surgeons thought there was such a thing as “laudable pus.”
Joseph Lister was very much a proponent of germ theory, based on his own experiments and his reading of the work of Louis Pasteur. Lister had been interested in microscopes from a young age, which might have made it easier for him to believe the wild theory that floating, invisible creatures would cause disease and infection. After studying at University College London, Lister moved to Edinburgh to study at the Royal Infirmary and James Syme.
For the rest of his life, Lister would experiment with antisepsis techniques and wound dressing. His work really did revolutionize the medical world. While his articles for The Lancet and other journals mostly aroused anger and controversy, Lister’s teaching in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London created a new generation of surgeons and doctors who were thoroughly versed in antisepsis.
Fitzharris does a wonderful job of recreating the world of mid-Victorian surgery, with plenty of disgusting and fascinating details about filth, medicine, and innovation. (She is also careful about giving credit where credit is due to other early proponents of germ theory, like poor Ignatz Semmelweis.) The Butchering Art is so well done that it could have been longer and I wouldn’t have minded a bit. I am definitely going to recommend this book to other readers who enjoy reading about the highs and lows of medical history—and can handle the gory stuff.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 17 October 2017.