DAILY MAIL,GUARDIAN AND OBSERVER BOOKS OF THE YEAR Winner of thePEN EO Wilson Prize for Literary Science WritingShortlisted for theWellcome Book PrizeShortlisted for theWolfson PrizeThe story of a visionary British surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world the safest time to be alive in human historyInThe Butchering Art, historian Lindsey Fitzharris recreates a critical turning point in the history of medicine, when Joseph Lister transformed surgery from a brutal, harrowing practice to the safe, vaunted profession we know today Victorian operating theatres were known as gateways of death , Fitzharris reminds us, since half of those who underwent surgery didn t survive the experience This was an era when a broken leg could lead to amputation, when surgeons often lacked university degrees, and were still known to ransack cemeteries to find cadavers While the discovery of anaesthesia somewhat lessened the misery for patients, ironically it led to deaths, as surgeons took greater risks In squalid, overcrowded hospitals, doctors remained baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high At a time when surgery couldn t have been dangerous, an unlikely figure stepped forward Joseph Lister, a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon By making the audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection and could be treated with antiseptics he changed the history of medicine forever With a novelist s eye for detail, Fitzharris brilliantly conjures up the grisly world of Victorian surgery, revealing how one of Britain s greatest medical minds finally brought centuries of savagery, sawing and gangrene to an end


14 thoughts on “The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

  1. Anne Anne says:

    In the first decade of the last century my grandmother, then a young medical student in London, heard Lord Lister lecture about the benefits of antisepsis in medical practice Seventy years earlier her grandfather had been the first doctor to successfully treat a young agricultural worker with a compound fractured femur by setting the leg in traction in a trough filled with plaster of Paris The young man made a full recovery, but he was lucky If he had been admitted to hospital his chances of survival would have been very poor.Lindsey Fitzharris s new biography of Joseph Lister makes it all too clear how a failure to understand the causes of infection, combined with to us utterly horrifying disregard of even basic hygiene, led to death from sepsis, gangrene and other infections that we would now recognise arose from bacterial infection And not only patients died, doctors who handled infected patients or who cut themselves during surgery which had to be performed at lightning speed before anaesthetics became available also died of infection Ironically the advent of anaesthesia actually increased mortality because operations could be performed.Lister s Quaker background and his father s improvements to the microscope combined with Lister s own talents as a surgeon resulted eventually in success after many years of struggling to improve patient survival rates and eliminate deaths from infection But Lister had not only to develop methods of keeping wounds clean and free from infection, and a theory of why the techniques worked, he had also to fight a medical profession whose models of the causes of disease rejected any notion that germs might have a part to play.By the time my grandmother heard Lister lecture he was a grand old man of the profession, but that position was hard won Without his persistence and meticulous scientific approach modern surgery would be impossible, deaths from even minor injuries common and childbirth frequently fatal In a world threatened with the loss of antibiotics we do well to remember how critical his discoveries were Lindsey Fitzharris has written a thoroughly researched and highly readable account of how Lister changed the world What a pity there are no illustrations, nevertheless it makes a gripping read.


  2. Pauline Butcher Bird Pauline Butcher Bird says:

    The title The Butchering Art, is misleading because it s a biography of Joseph Lister s life and not a history of surgery, as I thought Never mind, it is gruesome enough with details of mistakes like a penis chopped off alongside a leg because, before ether, the patient was awake and speed was crucial Lister observed the first operation when ether was used and surgeons could finally take time with their knives and saws But still most everyone died from infection because surgeons hands, instruments and operating rooms were not cleaned between patients They thought disease was created spontaneously and could not be stopped Guided by Pasteur s findings that infection consisted of microbes and could be transmitted through the air and by contact, Lister spent years searching for an antidote to stop their spread He found carbolic acid and against great opposition from the medical world everywhere, he persisted with its use and his patients stopped dying Slowly his fame spread and he was honoured as a giant in the history of medicine Listerine was developed in his name by an American, Dr Joseph Joshua I was disappointed not to learn about his childless marriage or whether he upheld his Quaker beliefs.Freak Out My Life With Frank Zappa


  3. Angela Buckley Angela Buckley says:

    The Butchering Art is one of my favourite non fiction reads this year I couldn t put it down Lindsey Fitzharris recounts the fascinating story of Joseph Lister, and his quest to improve the chances of patients undergoing surgery in 19th century Britain who, often than not, died of post operative infection Full of quirky facts, wry observations and gruesome details, this is a gripping book.Meticulously researched and brilliantly written, Lindsey recreates the horrors of early Victorian hospitals, where surgeons carried out surgical procedures without anaesthetic, in the most unsanitary of conditions Against this grim background, she weaves the pioneering work of Joseph Lister, whose antiseptic r gime saved thousands of lives The Butchering Art is an inspiring story told through a compelling narrative highly recommended


  4. manic mother manic mother says:

    Do you love history and science A fan of gruesome tales of medical mishaps Then this book is for you The author paints a compelling picture of the changes in the medical profession s understanding of human physiology and germ theory in the 1800s, how surgery moved from virtual butchery to a true science and what technologies permitted this change whilst being clear and acesible for anyone not familiar with medical terminology.


  5. Officer Dibble Officer Dibble says:

    The opening section which describes an operation pioneering the first use of ether is a bravura piece of stomach turning prose This really is butchery of the first water The book then settles down into a biography of Joseph Lister s early life and his attempts to improve recovery , given that pain had been mastered.The author uses a journalistic turn of phrase which will appeal to some readers but not others The fact that in the 1850 s surgeons were still opining, you stood a better chance at Waterloo than in a hospital , tells you everything about survival rates for even the most routine operation.The main body of the work is about Lister s discovery of germ theory and his struggle to convince a sceptical profession of the value of antiseptics The biography ends rather abruptly with Lister s return to London around 1877 and the following 35 years of his life are condensed into a handful of pages The author writes an Acknowledgements section of heroic proportions.Given the glowing reviews and status as top Non Fiction of 2017, this is a strangely disjointed book It is worth reading but is it a biography or a social history Starts exceptionally well but then loses its mojo.


  6. Navi Navi says:

    This book focuses on the practice of surgery in the 19th century through a societal framework but also specifically focusing on Joseph Lister, a Quaker surgeon Lindsey Fitzharris discusses the major changes that have taken place to transform surgery from a gruesome, deadly act to the humane, effective procedure we are accustomed to seeing today It was so interesting to see how things we take for granted in the modern world would have seemed so crazy or ridiculous to surgeons in the 19th century During this time, surgery was a crude, barbaric procedure that was always considered the last resort of treatment Even if patients were lucky enough to survive the actual surgery, many would die due to complications that arose after the surgery The post operative recovery period was fraught with infection.The few doctors that performed surgeries are described in a way that is reminiscent of villians from B horror movies than medical professionals.Example i The surgeon, wearing a blood encrusted apron, rarely washed his hands or his instruments and carried with him into the theater the unmistakable smell of rotting flesh, which those in the profession cheerfully referred to as good old hospital stink i What was especially interesting to me is the perception that society had of surgeons during this time period The surgeon was very much viewed as a manual labourer who used his hands to make a living rather than a respected and educated member of the medical community Nothing better demonstrated this fact than their abject poverty A far cry to contemporary surgeons with their lucrative six figure incomes Enter Joseph Lister, a Quaker surgeon hoping to transform the brutal act of surgery to a procedure that can be effectively used, prolonging life instead of shortening it Lister claimed that germs were the source of all infection These germs could be eliminated with the use of sterilizing agents This seems like common sense to us but at the time this idea caused quite the kerfuffle in the medical community Nobody wanted to believe that they could have prevented so many needless deaths in such a simple way.One of the major selling points of this book is the way Lindsey Fitzharris writes She does not hold back I was completely enthralled by the narrative At times, I felt as though I was physically wallowing in the filth and grime of Victorian society.It is hard to believe that this is a debut work Even though this is a shorter book less than 300 pages , I feel like the author fully fleshed out what she set out to do I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of medicine or anyone who is looking for a well written nonfiction narrative that will keep them hooked until the last page


  7. Paul Globus Paul Globus says:

    This book will make you happy to live in today s world and not in 19th century when medical doctors would operate on patients without sterilizing their instruments and had no idea how to clean wounds indeed, hospitals in England and Scotland in those days were known as death houses Ms Fitzharris s narrative about the pioneering developments in antiseptic surgery by Joseph Lister is engaging from beginning to end I really enjoyed the story and the excellent quality of the writing She goes into quite a bit of medical detail at times but even the squeamish should be able to keep their lunch down without too much of a problem Sir Joseph was a true visionary and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing the benefits of antiseptic surgery and antiseptic practices in general to the practice of modern medicine.


  8. Dr Santosh Pai. Manipal Dr Santosh Pai. Manipal says:

    The basic subject for clinical medicine is a thorough knowledge about Anatomy Its learnt by systematic dissection of the cadaver.It all started by men like Lister and Gray Very often the anatomists used to steal dead bodies from grave yards and dissect them in the middle of the night.A great book for doctors and lay people alike.


  9. Tracy Mazur Tracy Mazur says:

    This fantastically written tale paints a gruesome but accurate picture of pre sanitization surgery If you like The Ghost Map by Steve Johnson, you will love this meticulously researched story by the incomparable Dr Lindsay Fitzharris I would also highly recommend following her on Instagram, as she posts pictures of historic surgery tools, models and depictions She also has a great YouTube channel called Under the Knife.


  10. pauls pauls says:

    Sensational book that I had trouble putting down The gore and gruesomeness of parts might be off putting to some but they set context beautifully within the story Lister s considerable achievements are set within his life problems and failures which makes the story all the interesting While interested in medicine past and present I haven t done a lot of reading around medical history for a while This is the book that changes that.


  11. Kindle Customer Kindle Customer says:

    Enjoyed every page The Doctor has an easy reading form of writing and the information given is excellent Looking forward to from her.


  12. C. Way C. Way says:

    Beautifully written An excellent tale of a true revolution in medicine Perfect for those that are inclined medically, historically or some combination thereof.


  13. Carl Dillon Carl Dillon says:

    Excellent read written so that all can follow the details of the story Learned a lot about the horrors of surgery in the early 19th century and how Lister put surgery on the path to the painless wonders performed today.


  14. Isa Isa says:

    I found this book well researched and informative, but also very entertaining, although it is definitely not for the squeamish It s incredible to think that modern medicine, surgery and microbiology only began to come into their own 150 years ago, and how far we have come in such a short time.