I first discovered Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris on Instagram. She posts very interesting content about all kinds of historical and medical history and I highly recommend checking her page out. When I realized that she had written a book, The Butchering Art, I had to pick it up. It’s about one of the most pivotal times in medical history, the Victorian era. It primarily follows the life and accomplishments of Joseph Lister, also known as the “father of modern surgery.” This book is nonfiction so my review will have spoilers. Let’s get into the synopsis and then my thoughts!
In The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery on the eve of profound transformation. She conjures up early operating theaters–no place for the squeamish–and surgeons, working before anesthesia, who were lauded for their speed and brute strength. These medical pioneers knew that the aftermath of surgery was often more dangerous than their patients’ afflictions, and they were baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high. At a time when surgery couldn’t have been more hazardous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon named Joseph Lister, who would solve the deadly riddle and change the course of history.
Fitzharris dramatically recounts Lister’s discoveries in gripping detail, culminating in his audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection–and could be countered by antiseptics. Focusing on the tumultuous period from 1850 to 1875, she introduces us to Lister and his contemporaries–some of them brilliant, some outright criminal–and takes us through the grimy medical schools and dreary hospitals where they learned their art, the deadhouses where they studied anatomy, and the graveyards they occasionally ransacked for cadavers.
Eerie and illuminating, The Butchering Art celebrates the triumph of a visionary surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world.
It’s interesting (terrifying) to think about what the world would be like today if it wasn’t for Joseph Lister. The history of medicine isn’t a subject that I’ve really looked into so I didn’t know who Lister was before I read this book. If you’re not familiar with him, he was a doctor that introduced the use of carbolic acid as an antiseptic to clean surgical instruments and wounds… basically the reason most of us don’t die from an infection after being in the hospital or having surgery. I really enjoyed learning about this brilliant man and The Butchering Art is a well written, informative read; however, it’s not the most entertaining.
History, while fascinating and important to learn about, can be dull. Fitzharris does an excellent job making the subject as interesting as possible but I still found myself skimming the book at times. This isn’t a critique of her writing, it was great, it just wasn’t the most thrilling subject.
All I knew about this book before I bought it was that it was about Victorian medicine. Not to sound like a five year old, but I was hoping the book would include pictures of surgical instruments from the time period and general information about how the medical field improved during the Victorian era. Unfortunately for me, this book was a lengthy biography about Joseph Lister. While he was a brilliant man, he wasn’t the most exciting so reading all the little details of his life was tedious at times. However, this isn’t a fault of the book and I should’ve looked into it more before purchasing it.
Though this book wasn’t quite what I expected, I’m still glad that I read it. If you’re not a fan of biographies, history or medicine, this isn’t going to be the book for you. However, I would like to know if you think this would be something you’d enjoy reading! Thanks for reading and have a great day!