In Roxanne, the 1987 film adaptation of the Cyrano de Bergerac story, Steve Martin – in the leading male role of the a small mountain resort town’s erudite fire chief somewhat obviously named C.D. Bales – chastises his lovable but incompetent band of volunteer fire fighters upon finding a trash can ablaze inside the fire station:

I have a dream. It’s not a big dream, it’s just a little dream. My dream – and I hope you don’t find this too crazy – is that I would like the people of this community to feel that if, God forbid, there were a fire, calling the fire department would actually be a wise thing to do. You can’t have people, if their houses are burning down, saying, “Whatever you do, don’t call the fire department!” That would be bad.

A very similar sentiment regarding people submitting themselves to the attentions of a surgeon may likely have passed through the mind – albeit in more elevated Victorian prose, of course – of young medical student Joseph Lister upon witnessing the blood-spattered wrestling match that was a surgical procedure in the early Nineteenth Century. For in the period when young Lister was learning his craft, without even rudimentary anesthetics or any manner of hygiene beyond the surgeon wiping his bloody knife on his even bloodier apron, surgery more resembled the practices of the Spanish Inquisition than what we today would recognize as the practice of medicine.

Indeed, were it not for Dr. Lister’s bold experiments and relentless dedication to improving the art of surgery, not only in regard to how it was performed but even more importantly how patients were cared for following surgical procedures, one may very well still be asking if, regardless of how dire one’s condition was, undergoing surgery would be a wise thing to do.

Make no mistake; the depiction of the state of surgical practice that Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, historian of medicine and creator of the very popular medical history blog The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, presents in her book The Butchering Art; Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine is truly horrifying. Due to the brutal methods employed in early Victorian surgical theaters, patients waited until conditions were dangerously advanced before seeking treatment. And if treatment was sought, what was required was often drastic – amputations often being the only solution. Should the patient actually survive the procedure itself, death from shock or infection was not uncommon.

Spinning out the story of Dr. Lister’s education, professional development, research, and discoveries with the skill of a fine novelist, Dr. Fitzharris leads her readers through surgical theaters, hospital wards, laboratories, lecture halls, and even to the bedside of Queen Victoria herself. Along the way, she presents not only the medical challenges and practices of the period, but also clearly explains – in language clear and readily intelligible even to those without any medical training – how the diseases and conditions of the time were understood. This last is of particular importance as it both presents to modern readers the physicians and surgeons of the time as being the intelligent people that they were, struggling in their activities against the limited knowledge available to them as well as the established beliefs of their craft, and allows the true genius and creativity of Dr. Lister to show itself for how revolutionary – and how vigorously resisted in some quarters – they were.

Of particular interest was Dr. Fitzharris’ explanations of how Dr. Lister’s Quaker upbringing and beliefs contributed to the development of not only his skills and dedication as a surgeon, but also how they played a crucial role in his research due to the faith’s teachings on appropriate past-times for the devout. As it so happens, the study of the natural world was a highly respected activity among Quakers, and young Joseph’s father, Joseph Jackson Lister, was an early enthusiast and practitioner of light microscopy at a time when the instrument was still an exotic rarity even to medical professionals.

Thanks to Joseph Jackson Lister’s providing his son access to a microscope at an early age, the young Joseph developed not only the skills necessary to use such instruments but also the understanding of what they had the potential to disclose of the hidden world. Without understandings of both these things, it is highly doubtful that Dr. Lister would have had the inclination to question the then commonly held miasma theory of disease, apply the discoveries of Louis Pasteur to his own research, and develop the anti-septic techniques that saved the lives of so many of his own patients and countless people ever since.

As a regular reader of Dr. Fitzharris’ The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, I learned of The Butchering Art quite some time prior to its publication and awaited it with great anticipation. However even as compelling and interesting as all I have read in her previously published work has been, what she has written in The Butchering Art surpasses it all. Her superbly clean and clear style combines with her remarkable ability to make even obscure biological phenomena and complex medical practices easily intelligible to the general reader making this book a genuine delightful read for one and all. I unhesitatingly give it my highest recommendation and eagerly look forward to learning what the subject of her next book will be.

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

Author: Lindsey Fitzharris

Publisher: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Format: hardcover

Pages: 304 pp.

ISBN: 9780374117290

Published: October 2017

In accordance with Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255, it is disclosed that the copy of the book read in order to produce this review was provided gratis to the reviewer by the publisher.