This reminded me strongly of The Poisoner’s Handbook, another semi-biographical history of medical science (forensic medical science, in that case). Much like with The Poisoner’s Handbook, I can’t recommend this book if you’re not comfortable with reading about gore. If you don’t know what gangrene looks like, maybe you’ll feel better reading about it than I did (don’t look that up casually).
That said, I finished the book in the course of slightly more than a day. Clearly reading about evocatively gruesome and painful medical history does not deter me.
But a huge part of what makes this book so excellent, in my mind, is the way in which it clearly conveys the total transformation in the technology and technique of surgery over the course of the 1800s. That the book does so while also giving us a window into the personal life of the man who worked so hard to transform medicine is a lovely added bonus.
The Butchering Art opens with the grim realities of surgery in the early nineteenth century, in which each operation—usually an amputation—was sudden, painful, and likely to result in post-operative infection. Speed was vital in part because patients were not anesthetized, and they often struggled under the blades and saws of their surgeons. Even if a surgeon operated successfully, patients often died of post-operative infection afterwards due to the frequent foulness of surgeons’ hands, instruments, and operating conditions. These infections were so common and expected, and so frequent in hospitals, that the collection of diseases and infections were simply called “hospitalism.”
Yet by the close of the book, we’ve seen the development and spread of modern antiseptic (and eventually aseptic) technique, the spread of anesthesia, and the complete transformation of the butchering art (excellent title choice).
It’s really quite wonderful seeing the way in which Dr. Lister (the main focus for most of the book) finally comes to his realizations about post-operative infections. His fight to convince others of his discoveries is both encouraging and disheartening at turns, but not surprising. I’m not sure to what degree my appreciation comes from my love of nerdery, and to what degree it comes from Fitzharris doing a good job of walking us through Lister’s explorations, realizations, and struggles. Either way, it works well.
I should also note: I’m not an expert in the relevant historical period, and I found checking Fitzharris’ sourcing difficult in the ebook version I read. But she makes frequent use of primary sources, including a plethora of personal letters and Dr. Lister’s case notes, and manages to do so in a way that feels far more convincingly researched (and more widely sourced) than some other historical non-fiction I’ve read recently.
If you’re looking for historical non-fiction and you’re intrigued by the growth of modern medical science, I absolutely recommend this book.
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