The Butchering Art

Joseph Lister’s quest to transform the grisly world of Victorian medicine

By Lindsey Fitzharris

Surgical Medical History, Non-Fiction, Victorian History

Non-Fiction

Published by Allen Lane/Penguin Press

Longlist 2018

The spellbinding story of a visionary British surgeon who changed medicine for ever. In ‘The Butchering Art’, historian Lindsey Fitzharris recreates a critical turning-point in the history of medicine, when Joseph Lister transformed surgery from a brutal, harrowing practice to the safe, vaunted profession we know today.

Victorian operating theatres were known as gateways of death, 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, and surgeons were still known to ransack cemeteries to find cadavers. And 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 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 for ever. 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.

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