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, his son’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.

My conclusions:

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.