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The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to…
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The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of…

by Lindsey Fitzharris

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I found this to be a well written and fast moving biography of Joseph Lister that also includes some of the history of surgical medicine and the development of hospitals into what they are now. I would have appreciated a little more delving into the science of Lister's advances, but I still learned a bit of medical history here and thoroughly enjoyed the process. ( )
  duchessjlh | Feb 22, 2019 |
An interesting journey into Lister's life and his quest to make surgery less barbaric. The nineteenth centuries medical practices were appalling. Some of the book was hard to read because of the grisly nature of what they did and called surgery. This was our book club selection so there was much to talk about. Thank goodness for doctors like Lister and Pasteur; they believed there was a better way and they strived to find it. ( )
  bnbookgirl | Nov 13, 2018 |
It is hard to imagine an era when the role of microbes in infection wasn't known or understood. I have associated Koch with spelling out the understanding of the involvement of bacteria in infections. He started Koch's postulates which are still the fundamental rules for demonstrating the relationship between bacteria and disease. A special treat was the capsule history of medicine in Edinburgh in the nineteenth century. Listers father also played a more important role than I would have guessed. No doubt the superior microscope he manufactured fostered his sons fascination with microbes. ( )
  waldhaus1 | Jun 5, 2018 |
Back in the olden days, surgeons were valued not by their skill with a knife, but by their speed. Without anesthesia, surgery was the last resort of those in terrible pain and, indeed, most would die either from the surgery or soon afterwards from infection. One story has a surgeon completing an amputation in a mere 28 seconds, although he also managed to remove a testicle, three of his assistant's fingers and slice open a bystander's coat in the process. The patient died. As did the assistant and the bystander.

The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris begins with the first uses of ether, which allowed surgeons to operate on more complex cases. Unfortunately, this new ability did not increase the chances of survival, since infection was still an unsurmountable danger in a world where surgeons would move directly from the autopsy table to the operating table to examining patients in hospital beds, all without changing their clothes or even washing their hands. Medical students were known for being fancy dressers and also by the filthiness of their shirts.

Into this world stepped Joseph Lister who, influenced by the work of Louis Pasteur, began to work with the idea of keeping wounds clean and free of contamination. This was a controversial stance to take in a world that thought that infection was caused by bad air and essentially unavoidable. But through patience, working to persuade people and by constant improvements in his own strategies for keeping wounds and incisions infection-free, Lister gradually changed how surgeries are performed and hospitals maintained.

Fitzharris does a good job in communicating the importance of Lister's work. The book loses momentum after Lister's methods became accepted, and she was mainly accounting for Lister's final years, but the story itself is compelling as long as the reader has a fairly strong stomach for the details of amputations and the varieties of bacterial infections common in nineteenth century hospitals. ( )
  RidgewayGirl | Apr 6, 2018 |
If you’ve ever used the bright blue or green mouthwash with the antiseptic taste, then you have benefitted from the expertise of Joseph Lister. More importantly, if you’ve had surgery in a spotlessly clean operating room with a surgeon gowned and gloved up, you owe that to Joseph Lister. Lindsey Fitzharris tells his story The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine.

Lister began his surgical journey at a time when the two most desired qualities of a surgeon were speed and strength. The speed to cut (very often an amputation) as quickly as possible. This was needed because no anesthesia was used—it hadn’t been discovered yet. And the strength to hold the limb, pull it a specific way, and cut at the same time. As Fitzharris says in the book’s subtitle, it was absolutely grisly. Surgeons were more like butchers than skilled practitioners, and their experience often came from battlefields.

During his youth, Lister also learned a great deal about microscopes from his father. The senior Lister had a passion for making them work, and passed on this fascination to his son. Thus, the younger Lister’s lifelong work was established strongly in the investigative sciences.

Yet Lister also cared about his surgical patients’ survival. His initial training was in London, a city with a tremendous reputation for surgery. In the Victorian era, it was also an extremely dirty city. The quantity of people combined with industry affected everyone no matter their social class.

Despite the success of the actual operation, a significant portion of London’s surgical patients died from post-operative infections. Medical professionals believed infection was caused by all kinds of things. But none of those things included germs, cross-contamination between patients, or lack of sterile surgical environments.

Lister was obsessed with the scientific reason for infections, including a desire to find a solution. Fitzharris explains how each step of his career path affected the outcome of his research. She details the research into microorganisms he performed. And she discusses how the his mentors helped him, while his detractors simultaneously bedeviled his efforts. At first Lister just had to convince the people in charge of his ward and hospital. But ultimately, Lister knew he had to convince surgeons around the country, the continent, and the world.

Lister’s story is as much about how a scientific innovation becomes commonplace as it is about the actual practice of using antiseptics in medicine. It was a rocky road. At first, Lister tried publishing his findings in the medical journals of the time. After meeting with much resistance, he realized that his method needed to be taught in a hands-on manner. So he adjusted his approach and began with his own medical students. From there, the concepts began to gain traction.

Fitzharris shows how Lister progressed from a medical student with a stutter to a man of stature in his profession. For a fundamentally unassuming man, Lister’s persistence changed the world. He changed surgery from something that generally killed the patient to a mostly successful part of many people’s lives.

I found The Butchering Art to be readable, interesting, and even inspiring. Having been a surgical patient last year, I couldn’t help but put myself in the dismal shoes of Fitzharris’ early examples. And I certainly gave a words of thanks to Joseph Lister for his persistence and perspicacity. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of medicine and surgery.

Thanks to NetGalley, Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Lindsey Fitzharris for the opportunity to read the digital ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review. ( )
1 vote TheBibliophage | Mar 20, 2018 |
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To my grandma Dorothy Sissors, my bonus in life
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On the afternoon of December 21, 1846, hundreds of men crowded into the operating theater at London's University College Hospital, where the city's most renowned surgeon was preparing to enthrall them with a mid-thigh amputation.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374117292, Hardcover)

The gripping story of how Joseph Lister’s antiseptic method changed medicine forever

In The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery and shows how it was transformed by advances made in germ theory and antiseptics between 1860 and 1875. 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 career path 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 schools and squalid hospitals where they learned their art, the 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Wed, 03 May 2017 21:08:14 -0400)

A dramatic account of how 19th-century Quaker surgeon Joseph Lister developed an antiseptic method that indelibly changed medicine, describes the practices and risks of early operating theaters as well as the belief systems of Lister's contemporaries.… (more)

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