Sunday 22 April 2018

Review: The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Surgery prior to the nineteenth-century was brutal and messy. There was no anaesthetic and therefore the best people in the business were the fastest who could remove a leg from the hip in just one minute; yes one minute! Occasionally the knives and other tools were wiped before being used on the next victim, I mean patient, but were often not. Tables were normally covered in the blood and gore of the previous unlucky patients and if the shock of the operation didn't kill you, then the infection that you got probably would. Something had to change and it was a man called Joseph Lister, a quiet Quaker Surgeon who was to start the medical revolution.

He witnessed the beginnings of this revolution when he saw a man operated on under a crude anaesthetic; the operation was fast but he felt no pain waking later to ask when they were going to start. He was educated at University College London initially studying botany, but then registered as a medical student and graduated with honours as Bachelor of Medicine, and entered the Royal College of Surgeons. His first post was at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary where he became the first assistant to James Syme and ended up marrying his daughter.

At this time the commonly accepted knowledge was that infections were airborne, caused by bad air, or miasma. Hospitals were aired to let out the bad air, but there were almost no facilities for washing hands and the bloodstained gowns were worn to show their experience to the watching crowds. But the understanding of how infections are passed was beginning to change with the work of Loius Pasteur. Whilst at the University of Glasgow, Lister undertook his own experiments and realised that cleaning the tools and the area around the wound with carbolic acid. He was one of the first to ensure that the surgeons under him wore clean gloves and wash their hands before and after each surgery. Just these simple acts meant that your chances of survival went from negligible to quite high. As with anything, changing the status quo is often trying to move a mountain, but the new intake were those that were inspired by the work that Lister was doing and were embracing the new way of doing things. Not everyone thought that he was right, so much so that the Lancet cautioned others against his radical ideas. Slowly his ideas were accepted with significant support from others, and he even operated on Queen Victoria herself to remove an abscess.

There is lots of blood, pus and gore in here as Fitzharris does not hold back when discussing the way things were; not one to read when you are having your lunch! Rightly he was called the father of modern surgery as countless people have benefited from his research and innovations. All these new ideas he developed meant that you were less likely to die just from being in the hospital. It is one of the better books that I have read on medical history, Fitzharris writes in an engaging way on a subject that is not going to appeal to everyone, but in amongst all the blood is the fascinating story of Joseph Lister. Can highly recommend this. 4.5 Stars

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