The butchering art

by Lindsey Fitzharris

In the nineteenth century, operating theatres were known as 'gateways of death', since half of those who underwent surgery didn't survive the experience. It was an era when a broken leg could still lead to amputation, and surgeons didn't wash their hands, or their tools, between operations. While the discovery of anaesthesia in the 1840s lessened the misery for patients, ironically it led to more deaths, as surgeons took greater risks. 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 melancholy young Quaker surgeon. By making the then-audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection - and could be treated with antiseptics - he solved the riddle of post-operative death and changed the history of medicine forever.

In The Butchering Art, historian Lindsey Fitzharris tells the enthralling story of how one of Britain's greatest medical minds finally brought centuries of savagery, sawing and gangrene to an end. She introduces us to Lister's contemporaries - some brilliant, some outright criminal - and leads us through the grimy schools and hospitals in London and Edinburgh where they learned their art, the dead houses where they studied, and the cemeteries they ransacked for cadavers.

Vivid 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.

Kindle version