Book Review: The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris

A gory insight into surgical history

Until I read The Butchering Art I had not appreciated quite how grisly early nineteenth century surgery was for the patient. Apart from an audience watching the spectacle and no anaesthetics, the filth killed a lot of the sick. Nineteenth century surgery was no place for the squeamish. And if the operation wasn’t enough, the aftermath of surgery was fraught with complications, most of which related to sepsis. It seems incredible today that no one could work out why, especially when surgeons were known to not wash their hands. One of the biggest surprises for me were the numbers of surgeons who died because they had inadvertently infected themselves through a careless cut, exposing them to the patient’s body fluids. There were no gloves either.The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris reveals how Joseph Lister explores the use of antiseptic and had to deal with institutional politics in getting his work supported. It is a compelling read, particularly the insights into Lister’s contemporaries. How he came to eventually get his work endorsed by operating on Queen Victoria raised more questions for me as to why he wasn’t supported earlier, particularly with such high stakes at play. It is an insightful piece of work, revealing how something we take for granted today came to be developed through the use of carbolic acid. The book has been meticulously researched and is an excellent and informative read.The Butchering Art by Lindsay Fitzharris is published by Scientific American/ Farrar.

Buy a copy here.


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