The Butchering Art
March 30, 2019 10:50 AM - by Lindsey Fitzharris - Subscribe

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.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis (2 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is a good book, about Joseph Lister and how he ended up becoming the real driving force behind getting germ theory accepted in a surgical setting. Word of warning, Fitzharris really spares no detail in describing these primitive surgeries so some passages will require a strong stomach. Before Lister the real danger of surgery was the infection afterwards, which was almost a 100% certainty. After Lister and his antisepsis protocol (and the later evolution of that, the asepsis protocol) we have today's surgical survival rates, where infection is rare. An excellent if gory read.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 10:55 AM on March 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

"young, melancholy Quaker surgeon" is an excellent phrase.

I was just reading about the history of puerperal fever, where moving women into hospitals to give birth actually significantly increased mortality rates because the doctors spread infection moving from woman to woman.
posted by praemunire at 3:08 PM on March 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

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