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

Upon inquiring after the welfare of one of his patients, a surgeon at Guy’s Hospital in London was informed by his assistant that the man in question had died. The surgeon, who had become inured to this kind of news, replied, “Oh, very well!” He moved on to the next ward to ask about another patient. Again, the answer came, “Dead, sir.” The surgeon paused a moment. Frustrated, he cried, “Why, they’re not all dead?” To this, his assistant responded, “Yes, sir, they are.”
Scenes like this were playing out all over Britain. Mortality rates within hospitals had reached an all-time high by the 1860s. Efforts to clean up the wards had made little impact on incidences of hospitalism. What’s more, in the past several years there had been growing disagreement within the medical community over prevailing disease theories.

The Butchering Art is a fascinating history of surgery combined with the biography of Joseph Lister, the first surgeon in Britain to introduce a regime of deep cleaning hospital wards and revolutionising wound dressing.

It is amazing to read about the fatality statistics in surgery during Lister’s lifetime and how these statistics changed because of his discoveries and that of his contemporaries. While the book focuses on Lister, many other surgeons and scientists are also featured together with a broad overview of “office politics” of the Victorian medical establishment, and how different attitudes of university hospital boards hindered or promoted the advancement of hospital care.

This was an exciting read, but given the subject matter also made me wince at times, even tho none of the descriptions were gratuitous. It’s just that I don’t have a high threshold for blood and guts, even if the author took care to make light of the situation where it was appropriate (where it wasn’t the tone of the author’s description was suitably serious and respectful to the patients).

I am planning a visit to the Surgeons Hall Museum in Edinburgh later this year, which was very much the centre of Lister’s groundbreaking work, and I hope to find some of the tools like the carbolic spray pump and other examples of Lister’s work there. I’m really curious to see one in person and find out more about the mechanics of how it worked. It’s always exciting to see some of the things we read about and geek out on a field trip.

This time I hope that I’ll be able to meet up with the fellow geek enthusiast who’s recommended the book to me in the first place. 😉

Liston could remove a leg in less than thirty seconds, and in order to keep both hands free, he often clasped the bloody knife between his teeth while working. 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.


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