The Butchering Art, Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’ debut, follows the life of Joseph Lister, the ‘father of modern surgery’ and pioneer of antiseptic surgery. The book isn’t purely a biography though. Fitzharris’ style flits expertly between time and space, seamlessly bestowing little morsels of medical history knowledge without any cost to the narrative. In a relatively short book, Fitzharris explores medical advancements from America, Continental Europe, and of course, Edinburgh and London- making this book a must-read for anyone interested in the pioneers of modern surgery.
The Butchering Art dishes the dirt on the unsanitary hospitals of the past, detailing the devastating effects of the ‘big four’-erysipelas, gangrene, septicaemia and pyaemia- on the wards. Nowadays, the wealthy choose to be treated in private hospitals but during Lister’s time, those who could afford it were treated at home on their dining room tables. It seems a foreign concept to a modern reader but with postoperative infection ravaging the wards it was the safer option. Fitzharris doesn’t skimp on the gruesome details either. She perfectly captures the brutal nature of pre-anaesthetic surgery, recounting an incident were celebrated surgeon Robert Liston broke down a door and dragged a terrified patient back to the operating table to which he was subsequently bound. Liston is painted as brilliant, all fierceness and fire.
By introducing the reader to Robert Liston before Lister, Fitzharris creates an artful juxtaposition between Liston’s showmanship and Herculean strength and Lister’s contemplative quietness. Born a Quaker, Lister was mild, well-mannered and polite in the face of his rival’s criticism. I had no idea that a book which details the development of antiseptic surgery would be such an emotionally gripping read. Fitzharris describes Lister with such tenderness that I became quickly invested in his journey. I have read other reviews of The Butchering Art which lament Lister’s ‘amiable’ nature, asserting that perhaps a more hot-tempered nature would have made for a better story. I disagree. Lister’s cool methodical nature was precisely what surgery needed after the introduction of anaesthesia when speed was no longer such a pressing issue. Lister’s breakthroughs weren’t made in Robert Liston’s brutal and bloody operating theatre, but under the microscope – a tool which his own father had advanced.
One thing I really appreciate about The Butchering Art is its focus on the surgeons and physicians themselves. Fitzharris provides humanizing and touching details about the lengths the surgeons took to be as compassionate as possible to their patients, whom they knew weren’t likely to survive. The book also highlights how dangerous it was to be a surgeon which is something I had never previously considered. An accidental nick with a scalpel and a surgeon could die of one of the very infections he was fighting so hard to eradicate.
Overall, The Butchering Art is an amazing debut; Fitzharris doesn’t just describe the world of Victorian medicine, she transports you there. The Butchering Art is a testament to the stoicism of the pioneers who fought an uphill battle against injury and disease. The history of medicine has so many facets, and I can only hope that Fitzharris writes a book for each and every one of them!