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The Butchering Art
Cover of The Butchering Art
The Butchering Art
Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine
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Winner, 2018 PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing
Long-listed for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize
A Top 10 Science Book of Fall 2017, Publishers Weekly
A Best History Book of 2017, The Guardian

"Warning: She spares no detail!" —Erik Larson, bestselling author of Dead Wake

In 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 surgeons, who, working before anesthesia, were lauded for their speed and brute strength. These pioneers knew that the aftermath of surgery was often more dangerous than 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 riddle and change the course of history.

Fitzharris dramatically reconstructs Lister's career path to his audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection and could be countered by a sterilizing agent applied to wounds. She introduces us to Lister's contemporaries—some of them brilliant, some outright criminal—and leads us through the grimy schools and squalid hospitals where they learned their art, the dead houses where they studied, and the cemeteries they 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.

Winner, 2018 PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing
Long-listed for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize
A Top 10 Science Book of Fall 2017, Publishers Weekly
A Best History Book of 2017, The Guardian

"Warning: She spares no detail!" —Erik Larson, bestselling author of Dead Wake

In 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 surgeons, who, working before anesthesia, were lauded for their speed and brute strength. These pioneers knew that the aftermath of surgery was often more dangerous than 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 riddle and change the course of history.

Fitzharris dramatically reconstructs Lister's career path to his audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection and could be countered by a sterilizing agent applied to wounds. She introduces us to Lister's contemporaries—some of them brilliant, some outright criminal—and leads us through the grimy schools and squalid hospitals where they learned their art, the dead houses where they studied, and the cemeteries they 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.

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Awards-
About the Author-
  • Lindsey Fitzharris is the creator of the popular websites The Chirurgeon's Apprentice and Grave Matters, and the YouTube series Under the Knife. She writes for The Guardian, The Lancet, and other publications. She received a doctorate in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology from the University of Oxford and a postdoctoral research fellowship from the Wellcome Trust.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from July 3, 2017
    British science writer Fitzharris slices into medical history with this excellent biography of Joseph Lister, the 19th-century “hero of surgery.” Lister championed the destruction of microorganisms in surgical wounds, thus preventing deadly postoperative infections. This was a radical approach inspired by French microbiologist and chemist Louis Pasteur’s discovery of bacteria. Lister, whose Quaker father introduced him to the wonders of the microscope, became an evangelist for the germ theory of disease and the sterilization of both surgical instruments and doctors’ hands. The medical community resisted Lister’s procedures, but his successful treatment of Queen Victoria boosted his reputation and techniques—winning converts first in Scotland, then America, and finally London. “Lister’s methods transformed surgery from a butchering art to a modern science, one where newly tried and tested methodologies trumped hackneyed practices,” Fitzharris writes. She infuses her thoughtful and finely crafted examination of this revolution with the same sense of wonder and compassion Lister himself brought to his patients, colleagues, and students. “As he neared the end of his life, Lister expressed the desire that if his story was ever told, it would be done through his scientific achievements alone,” Fitzharris notes, respecting his wish and fulfilling it in the context of a remarkable life and time.

  • Library Journal

    June 15, 2017

    Our understanding of health and medicine has developed rapidly in the last 200 years. This book looks at a pivotal time in that development and one of the leading figures of modern medicine, Joseph Lister (1827-1912). Through observation, experimentation, and a passion to keep patients alive, Lister eventually overcame the prevailing beliefs of his day and saved countless lives. Readers will learn how breakthroughs such as pasteurization and the use of ether as an anesthesia led to a greater comprehension of bacteria and infection. Examples of cases, including personal accounts by patients, reveal frightening and painful surgery experiences. Descriptions of cringe-worthy hospital wards demonstrate how far we have come in our understanding of sanitation. Providing insight into Lister's character as well as detailing his life and death in England and Scotland are his personal relationships with colleagues, students, and his father. VERDICT A slightly gory, occasionally humorous, and very enjoyable biography of a man whose kindness, care, and curiosity changed medicine forever. An engaging read for history lovers.--Susanne Caro, Univ. of Montana Lib., Missoula

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    September 1, 2017
    Medical historian and popular blogger Fitzharris narrates the quest of a tenacious 19th-century doctor to save his patients; in the process, he transformed the world of surgery and medicine.Joseph Lister's choice to become a surgeon was not the most obvious or reputable one for a Quaker growing up as the son of an esteemed scientist acclaimed for his improvements to the microscope. In the early 1800s, a surgeon was little more than a butcher, a "manual laborer who used his hands to make a living, much like a key cutter or plumber today." It didn't help that surgery was extremely risky for patients. The introduction of ether to British medicine in 1846 was a critical turning point because it afforded surgeons more time to perform procedures. However, patients were still dying of post-surgical infections in high numbers, and Louis Pasteur's ideas about germs were still academic and not widely disseminated. Lister took up Pasteur's work and applied it to surgery, experimenting and finally finding an antiseptic and technique that successfully lowered rates of postoperative infection. He made it his mission to share his findings with a medical establishment clinging to old beliefs. It is thanks to Lister's tenacity and belief in the efficacy of his techniques, despite widespread skepticism, that so many people today don't have to look at surgery as a possible death sentence. Fitzharris knows how to engage readers in fascinating and shocking details about medical history. She clearly, if sometimes quickly, explains medical and scientific terms and techniques while also using novelistic details and narrative techniques to move the story along. In deftly capturing an "epochal moment when medicine and science merged," the author also offers an important reminder that, while many regard science as the key to progress, it can only help in so far as people are willing to open their minds to embrace change.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Erik Larson, bestselling author of Dead Wake and The Devil in the White City "In The Butchering Art, Lindsey Fitzharris becomes our Dante, leading us through the macabre hell of 19th-century surgery to tell the story of Joseph Lister, the man who solved one of medicine's most daunting--and lethal--puzzles. With gusto, Dr. Fitzharris takes us into the operating 'theaters' of yore, as Lister awakens to the true nature of the killer that turned so many surgeries into little more than slow-moving executions. Warning: She spares no detail!"
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Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine
Lindsey Fitzharris
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