BOOKS 2018-06-19T16:09:13+00:00
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The Butchering Art
Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

The 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 history

Victorian operating theatres were known as ‘gateways of death’, Lindsey 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 more 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 more 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.

ORDER NOW
The Butchering Art
Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

The 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 history

Victorian operating theatres were known as ‘gateways of death’, Lindsey 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 more 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 more 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.

Praise

Winner of the 2018 PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing
Shortlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize
Shortlisted for the 2018 Wolfson Prize

“Atmospheric . . . The story it tells is one of abiding fascination.” —Jennifer Senior, The New York Times

“Vivid, gory.” —Agatha French, Los Angeles Times

“[A] vivid picture. . . Some of it reads as the brutal relic of a vanished past; some of it reads as a brutal relic of the present.”–Genevieve Valentine, NPR

“Readers interested in the medical field can’t go wrong with this one.” —Bookish

A Publishers Weekly Book of the Week

“Pulsating, technicoloured . . . [Fitzharris] has an eye for morbid detail, visceral imagery and comic potential.” —Wendy Moore, The Guardian

Book of the Day, The Guardian

“Brilliant.” —Kate Womersley, The Spectator

“Fast-paced, thoroughly researched . . . Fitzharris documents her hero’s long struggle against naysayers and rivals, as well as the setbacks he faced in his personal and professional life, in an engaging journey into the past. This is popular history at its best.” –Dean Jobb, The Scotsman

The Butchering Art is an absorbing medical and social history that will leave you feeling both enlightened and thankful to benefit from the advances Lister (and his wife) popularized.” –Sarah Harrison Smith, Omnivoracious

“A fascinating account of how hospitals became places of healing rather than death.” The Daily Mail

“The Butchering Art is a formidable achievement –a rousing tale told with brio, featuring a real-life hero worthy of the ages and jolts of Victorian horror to rival the most lurid moments of Wilkie Collins.” –John J. Ross, The Wall Street Journal

“Electric. The drama of Lister’s mission to shape modern medicine is as exciting as any novel.” –Dan Snow, BBC presenter and author 

“Excellent . . . [Fitzharris] infuses her thoughtful and finely crafted examination of this [antiseptic] revolution with the same sense of wonder and compassion Lister himself brought to his patients, colleagues, and students . . . a remarkable life and time.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

The Butchering Art is medical history at its most visceral and vivid. It will make you forever grateful to Joseph Lister, the man who saved us from the horrors of pre-antiseptic surgery, and to Lindsey Fitzharris, who brings to life the harrowing and deadly sights, smells, and sounds of a nineteenth-century hospital.” –Caitlin Doughty, bestselling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and From Here to Eternity

“[Fitzharris] paints a compelling portrait of a man of conviction, humor and, above all, humanity. . . The Butchering Art is thoroughly enjoyable.” —The Guardian

“In The Butchering Art, Lindsey Fitzharris becomes our Dante, leading us through the macabre hell of nineteenth-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!” —Erik Larson, bestselling author of Dead Wake and The Devil in the White City

“With an eye for historical detail and an ear for vivid prose, Lindsey Fitzharris tells a spectacular story about one of the most important moments in the history of medicine: the rise of sterile surgery. The Butchering Art is a spectacular book–deliciously gruesome and utterly gripping. You will race through it, wincing as you go, but never wanting to stop.” Ed Yong, bestselling author of I Contain Multitudes

The Butchering Art is a brilliant and gripping account of the almost unimaginable horrors of surgery and postoperative infection before Joseph Lister transformed it all with his invention of antisepsis. It is the story of one of the truly great men of medicine and of the triumph of humane scientific method and dogged persistence over dogmatic ignorance.” –Henry Marsh, bestselling author of Do No Harm

“Fitzharris knows how to engage readers in fascinating and shocking details about medical history . . . 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.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Fascinating and shocking.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A slightly gory, occasionally humorous, and very enjoyable biography of a man whose kindness, care, and curiosity changed medicine forever.” –Susanne Caro, Library Journal