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The Butchering Art Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

The Butchering Art Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

History   All Shortlists and Winners   The Wolfson History Prize 2018   

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Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2018

"In the 1840s, operative surgery was a filthy business fraught with hidden dangers. It was to be avoided at all costs”. So states the author near the opening of this grippingly grisly work. But despite (or perhaps because of) these risk-riddled conditions, medical voyeurism became a sought-after source of Victorian entertainment. This was an era in which pus was seen as a sign of healing; when surgeons rarely washed their instruments or hands; an era in which theatres of death rang with the screams of patients and the gasps of shocked spectators. It was among such a medico-cultural environment that a young surgeon named Joseph Lister voiced the audacious idea that germs were the cause of infection, and they could be treated.

Dripping with gory detail, drama and reverence for a medical visionary, this is absolutely fascinating stuff - a lively, enlightening journey through social and medical history, a brilliant biography of an ingenious doctor whose invention of antisepsis was nothing short of revolutionary. ~ Joanne Owen


The Butchering Art Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

DAILY MAIL, GUARDIAN AND OBSERVER BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 Shortlisted for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize Winner of the 2018 PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing The story of a visionary British surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world - the safest time to be alive in human history Victorian operating theatres were known as 'gateways of death', Lindsey Fitzharris reminds us, since half of those who underwent surgery didn't survive the experience. This was an era when a broken leg could lead to amputation, when surgeons often lacked university degrees, and were still known to ransack cemeteries to find cadavers. While the discovery of anaesthesia somewhat lessened the misery for patients, ironically it led to more deaths, as surgeons took greater risks. In squalid, overcrowded hospitals, doctors remained baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high. At a time when surgery couldn't have been more dangerous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: Joseph Lister, a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon. By making the audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection - and could be treated with antiseptics - he changed the history of medicine forever. With a novelist's eye for detail, Fitzharris brilliantly conjures up the grisly world of Victorian surgery, revealing how one of Britain's greatest medical minds finally brought centuries of savagery, sawing and gangrene to an end.


'Gruesomely compelling ... A fascinating account' -- Nick Rennison, Daily Mail

'Gloriously pulsating ... [Fitzharris] has an eye for morbid detail, visceral imagery and comic potential. From out of this hellish vision, Lister emerges as the cool, modern, scientific saviour to whom we should all give thanks' -- Wendy Moore, Guardian

'Atmospheric ... The Butchering Art has its share of resplendent gore' -- Jennifer Senior, New York Times

'Thoroughly enjoyable ... With The Butchering Art, Fitzharris explores the intersection of Lister's life, the development of antiseptic surgery, and the horrors of the wards with an almost surgical precision' -- Nicola Davis, 'Book of the Day', Observer

'The Butchering Art is a formidable achievement - a rousing take told with brio, featuring a real-life hero worthy of the ages and jolts of Victorian horror to rival the most lurid moments of Wilkie Collins' -- John J. Ross, Wall Street Journal

'Brilliant ... Thanks to Lister's dogged pursuit of knowledge and fervent attention to the needs of surgical patients, death rates plummeted. Fitzharris tells this story with an equal attention to detail' -- Joanna Bourke, Telegraph

'Scintillating and shocking ... A book full of gangrene, pus and hideous pain, which will make you thankful never to suffer the horror of having a tumour removed from your jaw with no pain relief' -- Bee Wilson, Sunday Times

'Hugely entertaining and informative ... Fitzharris brings [Joseph Lister's] sensibility to life with great energy and elegance, and her account is vivid and entertaining, as well as enjoyably (and sometimes eye-wateringly) graphic. The result is rich with anecdote and intellectual excitement, replete with emotional resonance and narrative pleasure' -- Matthew Adams, National

'An illuminating and grisly look at the work of hacksaw-wielding surgeons of the 19th century' -- Sian Cain, Guardian

'Well researched and written with verve... A fine read full of vivid detail, prompting thoughtful reflection on the past, and the challenging future, of surgical practice' -- Tilli Tansey, Nature

'Bloody, visceral, and fascinating' -- Entertainment Weekly

'A lively read, constantly entertaining ... Fitzharris is an unapologetic showman. I imagine her as a ringmaster, inviting us to roll up and read if we dare' -- The National

'A brilliant and gripping account of the almost unimaginable horrors of surgery and post-operative infection before Lister transformed it all with his invention of antisepsis. It is the story of one of the truly great men of medicine and of the triumph of humane scientific method and dogged persistence over dogmatic ignorance' -- Henry Marsh, author of Do No Harm and Admissions

'Engaging and extensively researched ... A riveting and sympathetic description of one man's quest to help humanity' -- Patricia Fara, Literary Review Electric.

'The drama of Lister's mission to shape modern medicine is as exciting as any novel -- Dan Snow, author of Battlefield Britain - Book of the Week

'In The Butchering Art, Lindsey Fitzharris becomes our Dante, leading us through the macabre hell of nineteenth-century surgery to tell the story of Joseph Lister, the man who solved one of medicine's most daunting - and lethal - puzzles. With gusto, Dr. Fitzharris takes us into the operating 'theaters of yore, as Lister awakens to the true nature of the killer that turned so many surgeries into little more than slow-moving executions. Warning: She spares no detail!' -- Erik Larson, bestselling author of Dead Wake and The Devil in the White City

'With an eye for historical detail and an ear for vivid prose, Lindsey Fitzharris tells a spectacular story about one of the most important moments in the history of medicine-the rise of sterile surgery. The Butchering Art is a spectacular book-deliciously gruesome and utterly gripping. You will race through it, wincing as you go, but never wanting to stop' -- Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes

'An absolutely fascinating and grisly read that vividly brings to life the world of the Victorian operating theatre' -- Catharine Arnold, author of Bedlam and Necropolis

'Fitzharris slices into medical history with this excellent biography of Joseph Lister, the 19th-century hero of surgery. ... She infuses her thoughtful and finely crafted examination of this revolution with the same sense of wonder and compassion Lister himself brought to his patients, colleagues, and students'. -- Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

'The Butchering Art is medical history at its most visceral and vivid. It will make you forever grateful to Joseph Lister, the man who saved us from the horror of pre-antiseptic surgery, and to Lindsey Fitzharris, who brings to life the harrowing and deadly sights, smells, and sounds of a nineteenth-century hospital' -- Caitlin Doughty bestselling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and From Here to Eternity

'Fascinating and shocking ... [Fitzharris] offers an important reminder that, while many regard science as the key to progress, it can only help in so far as people are willing to open their minds to embrace change' -- Kirkus (Starred Review)

About the Author

Lindsey Fitzharris

Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2018

Lindsey Fitzharris received her doctorate in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at the University of Oxford and was a post-doctoral research fellow at the Wellcome Institute. She is the creator of the popular website The Chirurgeon's Apprentice, and she writes and presents the YouTube series Under the Knife. She has written for the Guardian, the Lancet, the New Scientist, Penthouse, the Huffington Post and Medium, and appeared on PBS, Channel 4 UK, BBC and National Geographic.

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

I like to say that The Butchering Art is a love story between science and medicine. It details the first time that a scientific principle (germ theory) was applied to medical practice through the development of antisepsis. Joseph Lister was a visionary surgeon who persevered with his work despite a prevailing climate of scepticism and denial. In this way, his story is more relevant today than it has ever been.

My intention when I set out to write The Butchering Art was to ensure that Lister’s name would become just as familiar to people as those of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Marie Curie. Lister revolutionised surgery and made safe procedures that had been perilous for centuries. I’m so pleased to see his achievements garnering the attention they deserve. I’m also humbled to find myself in such talented company as a shortlisted author for the Wolfson Prize, especially as this will further help shine a light on Lister’s legacy.

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Book Info

Publication date

17th October 2017


Lindsey Fitzharris

More books by Lindsey Fitzharris
Author 'Like for Like'


Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Books Ltd


304 pages


All Shortlists and Winners
The Wolfson History Prize 2018

History of medicine

Modern history to 20th century: c 1700 to c 1900



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