The Butchering Art, by Lindsey Fitzharris
No matter what your impression of the state of our current health and hospital system is, The Butchering Art reminds us of the astonishing advancements in medicine over the past century and a half. Visionary surgeon Joseph Lister (remembered to this day for the honor of being memorialized as a brandname mouthwash) is the subject of author Lindsey Fitzharris’s gripping book that details (in wonderful goriness) the practice of surgery and the state of hospital care in Great Britain during the mid 1800s. At a time when scientific knowledge of microbes and germ theory was nonexistent, Lister was able to envision (with the help of ground-breaking work from Frenchman Louis Pasteur) the basis of antiseptic practices that plummeted surgical mortality rates. The paradoxical discovery of chloroform as an anesthetic in 1847 shortly before Lister’s theory solidified, allowed surgeons to attempt more invasive procedures but also resulted in an almost guaranteed death-sentence from sepsis. As always with visionary thinkers, Lister had his detractors, and Fitzharris does a wonderful job of detailing the (appalling) accepted practices of the day. This book was both informative and entertaining and a good reminder that imagination combined with perseverance is the key to innovation and progress.
Review by Sarah Ehrenson