The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

The gripping story of how Joseph Lister's antiseptic method changed medicine foreverIn The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery and shows how it was transformed by advances made in germ theory and antiseptics between 1860 and 1875. She conjures up early operating theaters--no place for the squeamish--and...

Title:The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine
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The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine Reviews

  • Jodi Spillane

    Extremely readable history of Joseph Lister's career and his successful attempt to transform Victorian medicine into something that could actually cure a patient, not kill them. If you are squeamish, don't read this book while eating :-)

  • Roisin Cure

    A brother of mine had an advance copy of The Butchering Art and was going to send it to my daughter - his goddaughter - as she has a taste for the gory, and has expressed an interest in studying medicine. "Not so fast," I said, "I think I'll have that." So he sent it to me.

    Is there a word that is the opposite of genocide? That's what Lister did.

    The Butchering Art is the story of how one man - who stood on the shoulders of giants - transformed medical operations from something of enormous risk i

    A brother of mine had an advance copy of The Butchering Art and was going to send it to my daughter - his goddaughter - as she has a taste for the gory, and has expressed an interest in studying medicine. "Not so fast," I said, "I think I'll have that." So he sent it to me.

    Is there a word that is the opposite of genocide? That's what Lister did.

    The Butchering Art is the story of how one man - who stood on the shoulders of giants - transformed medical operations from something of enormous risk into something that none of us needs to face with dread. He was the perfect confluence of character, heritage and circumstance; we often hear of villains whose circumstances contrived to turn them wicked, but seldom do we hear about good people whose circumstances allowed them to fulfill their potential and reach dizzying heights of benevolence.

    From the moment the book began, I was hooked. Each chapter sets the scene for the tale to follow: while other books might give you a rather dry context for what's to come, not Dr Fitzharris. She describes the scene where the action is to be set in a way that makes you feel like you're there - the cold, the snowy streets, the stuffy, stinking atmosphere in a filthy operating room...if you ever dream about what it was like to live in times gone by, the author's words will transport you in glorious technicolor. Her uncanny ability to do this continues throughout the book, and I can now conjure up images of nineteenth-century medical circles in a way that I never thought possible. So from an atmospheric point of view, it's a virtuoso performance.

    The subject of the book, Joseph Lister, is introduced in a timely manner - just far enough in to give you the social context of his arrival. The journey he took is sensitively written, and you feel for him, especially if you've ever experienced the frustration of self-belief when you are surrounded by naysayers. His life, and his incredible work, are nothing short of utterly inspiring. I feel a huge sense of gratitude to Lister (and of course to the poor, unsung heroes who went before him, like the Hungarian doctor whose name I have already forgotten, like everyone else). The story of Lister's life is one that gives me comfort on many levels. That he did what he did; that it's possible to do something really good and lasting with your life; that you need to remember the bigger picture, even when things aren't going you way.

    Another thing I loved about the book is that your curiosity is often piqued by the circumstances of bit-players in the book. For example, a woman is stabbed. The point of this is to tell you how her wound was treated, but the author knows that you want to know whether she got justice, and so she tells you just enough to satisfy, but not so much that the story digresses too much. The same approach is given with other minor characters, and it's perfectly judged.

    Yes, the book is very gory, and that isn't my cup of tea, but you quickly get used to that (like most animal lovers the only bit I found hard to read was a description of vivisection on an animal, but it was done in the genuine pursuit of medical advancement, and I have to try to remember that). Besides, the gore and so on was an intrinsic part of Victorian life and is an important contribution to the setting of the scene. The place must have stunk between one thing and another. I don't want to give too much away, but imagine if your doctor came in to operate on you in a filthy apron covered in bits of decaying body, with filthy knives, and to whom it would not occur to wash his hands?

    Normally I fall asleep the second I hit the pillow, and I have had late nights and early starts over the last couple of weeks, but I still indulged in a few pages every night - it was a real treat and I hung on every word. I thank the author deeply for the time and effort she gave to writing and researching this book. I only wish she had written an extensive library of such tomes.

    A fantastic read that stays with you long after you turn the last page.

  • Jamie

    My hardback copy is here!

    I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this through NetGalley, and seriously, the second I finished it, I went and preordered it. This is one of the best and my favorite books of the year!

    Even though I just read this, I'm already rereading this.

    In short, This book really delves into the Victorian surgery practices and thanks to Joseph Lister, for forever changing what we know about surgery today. Seriously highlighted and now tabbing seems like half of the book. S

    My hardback copy is here!

    I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC of this through NetGalley, and seriously, the second I finished it, I went and preordered it. This is one of the best and my favorite books of the year!

    Even though I just read this, I'm already rereading this.

    In short, This book really delves into the Victorian surgery practices and thanks to Joseph Lister, for forever changing what we know about surgery today. Seriously highlighted and now tabbing seems like half of the book. So fascinating and well researched.

    Looking through the hardback copy, there is an index in the back and around 30 pages of notes on where the research came from!

    I would recommend this to anyone interested in medical, history, science, an amazing well-researched biography....ok nevermind-I would recommend this to everyone.

    Can't wait to see Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris speak at the Winchester House on Oct 20 :).

    Also, you can check out her Youtube channel, all about past medical practices

    Cant thank Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris and Farrar, Straus and Giroux enough for allowing me to read and review this book for an honest opinion through Netgalley.

  • Vintage274

    Medical history can be fascinating, especially when we realize how far we have come and so quickly. This book makes all too clear the threat to health of the nineteenth century when surgeons had no idea that germs caused infections and that simple sanitation could save lives. Detailed and interesting

  • Jen Juenke

    I loved this book. It was part history, part medical history, and part biography. The book follows the path of Dr Lister who pioneered the stop of spreading germs during surgery. It delves into how surgeries were performed in hospitals and at home, how high the fatality rate was when surgery was performed, and the general conditions of European hospitals in the 1800's. The author was detailed, dramatic, and I felt that the book was well researched. BRILLIANT Book for anyone curious about medical

    I loved this book. It was part history, part medical history, and part biography. The book follows the path of Dr Lister who pioneered the stop of spreading germs during surgery. It delves into how surgeries were performed in hospitals and at home, how high the fatality rate was when surgery was performed, and the general conditions of European hospitals in the 1800's. The author was detailed, dramatic, and I felt that the book was well researched. BRILLIANT Book for anyone curious about medical history!

  • Julia Simpson-Urrutia

    Speed and spectacle typified British surgery in the first half of the 19th century. The operating theater no doubt got its name from the audience it drew from curious laypeople right off the streets although naturally the first rows and floor area were crowded with medical students. A surgeon might not be able to operate until he had enough space. Frustrated audience in the back rows yelled, “Heads, heads!” when people in front obscured their view.

    We forget the major impacts that our understandi

    Speed and spectacle typified British surgery in the first half of the 19th century. The operating theater no doubt got its name from the audience it drew from curious laypeople right off the streets although naturally the first rows and floor area were crowded with medical students. A surgeon might not be able to operate until he had enough space. Frustrated audience in the back rows yelled, “Heads, heads!” when people in front obscured their view.

    We forget the major impacts that our understanding—of science, medicine and technology, for instance—have had on culture. The Butchering Art reminds the reader that even such details as how people got hurt, how they endured large tumors over years of growth or operations for the same, and what they believed did and did not cause illness have radically altered. We would be shocked at what people argued about over the dinner table and at staff meetings!

    Just before the mid-19th century, “Hospitalism” was a coined phrase understood to refer to the increase of infection and suppuration brought on by “the big four” killers in hospitals: gangrene, septicemia, “pyemia” (development of pus-filled abscesses) and erysipelas (a streptococcus infection of the skin, i.e. St. Anthony’s Fire).

    Those in the medical field knew that hospitalism was a highly likely recurring event at large urban hospitals but they did not know why. Because infections were so prevalent in big hospitals, some doctors were proponents of patients being treated in their own homes or at the doctors’ offices. Understandably, however, it was easier for doctors to perform surgeries and for nurses to watch over patients in big hospitals, but within those confines, medical staff argued about how contagion spread, giving rise to two groups—“contagionists” and “anti-contagionists.”

    Contagionists believed in contagion that went from person to person. Contagionists had an assortment of theories, including invisible bullets of disease. Anti-contagionists indignantly pointed to the squalor of the living conditions of the poor as well as the disgusting state of streets in large urban areas (London) Miasma was blamed for the spread of disease.

    Set against this background of ideas comes Joseph Lister, the British surgeon of Quaker background who was noted (and knighted) for his endless scientific studies and promotion of antiseptic surgery and sterilization and upon whose life Fitzharris brings her own microscope. However, in The Butchering Art, the author begins with Robert Liston, who was noted for his speed and dexterity, if not for the survival rate of patients (poor at best) due to the fact that no one yet understood how infection occurred. Since there was nothing to render the patient unconscious, the best surgeons were fast. Liston, Fitzharris tells us, “could remove a leg in less than thirty seconds.” Speed had its drawbacks, as when Listen sliced off the testicle along with the leg being amputated.

    Joseph Lister, as it happens, was witness to Liston’s use of ether, giving rise to the claim that patients would not suffer pain during surgery. There was still nothing yet that could prevent their falling prey to infection, which was expected. Pus was part of the healing process, but the healing process often led to death.

    This fascinating book held me in its grip. Fitzharris does a wonderful job of coloring in the concepts of the culture, depicting the smells and images of England and Scotland, all while demonstrating that there was both wondrous good and nearly insurmountable ego involved in the medical profession—and either trait could kill a person as easily as cure. How a surgeon like Lister ever got the rest of the medical field to listen, (for there is hardly any profession less proud than that of surgeons) when the principles he applied saved lives put others in his shadow, is a true marvel.

    I loved reading about Dr. Lister, his life, and his attitude. I appreciate Linsey Fitzharris bringing attention to such an important man and significant development. #fsgbooks @fsgbooks

  • Book Riot Community

    When is it a better time to read a gruesome history of medicine than right before Halloween??? Fitzharris spares no details documenting Joseph Lister and his campaign to teach the medical profession that germs really existed. (Before Lister, doctors didn’t wash their hands or their medical instruments all that often. Blergh.) It’s also an illuminating look at a profession one looked upon with skepticism, a profession that often relied on graveyards to supply their knowledge…

    Backlist bump: Cranio

    When is it a better time to read a gruesome history of medicine than right before Halloween??? Fitzharris spares no details documenting Joseph Lister and his campaign to teach the medical profession that germs really existed. (Before Lister, doctors didn’t wash their hands or their medical instruments all that often. Blergh.) It’s also an illuminating look at a profession one looked upon with skepticism, a profession that often relied on graveyards to supply their knowledge…

    Backlist bump: Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius by Colin Dickey

    Tune in to our weekly podcast dedicated to all things new books, All The Books:

  • Erin

    Dr. Joseph Lister became a surgeon in a time in which Germ Theory was considered "Fake News". 19th Century surgery was crude, bloody, painful, and almost always fatal. 19th Century surgery was barbaric. Hospitals were commonly known as death houses and something to be avoided if you had any money. Surgeons didn't wash their hands, tools, clothing, or hospital beds. It was quite common for a surgeon to conduct an autopsy and without washing anything use those same tools to operate on living patie

    Dr. Joseph Lister became a surgeon in a time in which Germ Theory was considered "Fake News". 19th Century surgery was crude, bloody, painful, and almost always fatal. 19th Century surgery was barbaric. Hospitals were commonly known as death houses and something to be avoided if you had any money. Surgeons didn't wash their hands, tools, clothing, or hospital beds. It was quite common for a surgeon to conduct an autopsy and without washing anything use those same tools to operate on living patient. 90% of patients who survived the surgery died of infection afterwards.

    Dr. Lister set out to fix this and in doing so made a lot of enemies amongst his fellow surgeons but more importantly changed the course of human history. It is mind boggling to think of how many people Dr. Lister saved. He transformed not only the way doctors treated patients but how we as regular people live our lives. Just count how many times you wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. Do you cover your nose/mouth when sneeze/cough?

    Before Dr. Lister very few people did these things and if they did they would have been dismissed as being quacks. Lindsay Fitzharris paints a shocking and visceral depiction of the world that Dr. Lister inhabited. The Butchering Art is a fast paced and brilliant account of 19th Century medicine.

    Highly Recommended!

  • Lindsay Adolph

    As a nurse, this book held a special place in my heart . Lindsey Fitzharris wrote so eloquently, and researched so thoroughly, i felt as if I was literally seeing the world through Lister’s eyes. Joseph Lister was such an amazing man, who not only wanted to further science and medicine, but desperately sought to better this world. I only wish that every surgeon and healthcare worker had the care and compassion this man did! This was an amazing read, and i recommend to everyone. I promise you wil

    As a nurse, this book held a special place in my heart . Lindsey Fitzharris wrote so eloquently, and researched so thoroughly, i felt as if I was literally seeing the world through Lister’s eyes. Joseph Lister was such an amazing man, who not only wanted to further science and medicine, but desperately sought to better this world. I only wish that every surgeon and healthcare worker had the care and compassion this man did! This was an amazing read, and i recommend to everyone. I promise you will never look at your Listerene mouthwash the same again :)

  • Kate

    Here is my favourite passage from the book, and a good intro to the tone of Fitzharris' writing - on Liston, a surgeon who practiced a time before anesthesia when speed was the most valuable asset one could have when performing surgery:

    "Liston's speed was both a gift and a curse. Once, he accidentally sliced off a patient's testicle along with the leg he was amputating. His most famous (and possibly apocryphal) mishap involved an operation during which he worked so rapidly that he took off three

    Here is my favourite passage from the book, and a good intro to the tone of Fitzharris' writing - on Liston, a surgeon who practiced a time before anesthesia when speed was the most valuable asset one could have when performing surgery:

    "Liston's speed was both a gift and a curse. Once, he accidentally sliced off a patient's testicle along with the leg he was amputating. His most famous (and possibly apocryphal) mishap involved an operation during which he worked so rapidly that he took off three of his assistant's fingers and, while switching blades, slashed a spectator's coat. Both the assistant and the patient died later of gangrene, and the unfortunate bystander expired on the spot from fright. It is the only surgery in history said to have had a 300 percent fatality rate."

    I

    medical history. LOVE it. I love the body-horror of it all, the gross spectacle of it, but also how it makes me appreciate being alive when I am and imagining what it must have been like to be a person living then - my wariness of hospitals now has nothing on what someone must have felt back then when so many people who went in never came out. I like thinking about the things that we don't know about now that someone 100 years in the future will be thinking, man, I'm so glad I didn't live in the early 21st century when they didn't even know how to regrow limbs or treat cancer without poisoning themselves! How terrible!

    I also love the stories, like this one, about how we (collectively as society) gain knowledge about things and how hard the process is. How pushback occurs because of inertia and things that we just feel are true and economics and politics etc. This book talks about the competition between miasma and germ theory at the time. Miasma theory held that disease occurs spontaneously from unhygienic conditions, so there was more disease in big cities because everyone dumped their shit in the streets and there was little clean water and little fresh air and those conditions just caused diseases to occur. Germ theory held that tiny particles (which were sometimes called "animalcules" which is a really adorable word to me) could be passed from person to person through touch or through the air or other mediums like water or goods were what caused disease (for more on this you can also read

    which talks about how John Snow proved that cholera was being transmitted through the water from a certain pump in London). So some people liked miasma theory because they felt the facts pointed that way, some because that's what they'd been taught and didn't feel the need to explore further than that, but also there were economic/political factors that caused people to support it. People who believed germ theory recommended that whenever there was an outbreak of disease in another country, Britain should put a temporary stop on imports to prevent the disease from spreading. Some politicians and businessmen supported miasma theory because that was the one that wouldn't halt trade and lose them money whenever there was a potential for outbreak. This is one thing that we can't look back on and think, "how barbaric" because it still happens now! What caused the water crisis in Flint and what's preventing it from being dealt with swiftly and carefully? Money, politics. Books like this one can really show us how much things have changed but also how much they stay the same (to our definite detriment).

    So! This book is recommended if you like reading about gross medical history, if you like learning about scientific process and progress, and if you like outraging yourself about how little compassion is involved in large-scale and long-term decision making.

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