Surgeons are the miracle-workers of the 21st century – but it was not always so. In The Butchering Art, medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery and shows in gripping detail how it was transformed by germ theory and antiseptics. She conjures up early operating theaters―no place for the squeamish―and surgeons, working before anesthesia, who 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 discoveries, leading 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 medical schools and squalid hospitals where they learned their art, the harrowing 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.