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

The Butchering Art, written by Lindsey Fitzharris, was a finalist for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing and has since been translated into several languages.

The Smithsonian Channel showed her show The Curious Life and Death of… She has a PhD in the History of Science and Medicine from the University of Oxford.

And is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, and other prestigious journals.

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

The Butchering Art

Historian Lindsey Fitzharris, in her book The Butchering Art, exposes the horrifying reality of nineteenth-century surgery.

And demonstrates how advancements in germ theory and antiseptics between 1860 and 1875 completely revolutionised the field.

She brings to mind pre-anesthesia operating rooms (not a place for the faint of heart) and surgeons who were celebrated for their quickness and raw power.

These trailblazers understood that surgical complications frequently posed a greater threat to patients than their underlying diseases.

And they were perplexed by the tenacious infections that contributed to the consistently high mortality rates.

The unexpected character of a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon named Joseph Lister emerged at a time when surgery could not have been riskier to solve the mystery and alter the course of history.

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

Lindsey Fitzharris’s biography of surgeon Joseph Lister vividly brings to life the sights, sounds, and aromas of mid-nineteenth-century medicine from the very first pages.

In their haste, surgeons in bloodstained aprons slashed through testicles and assistants’ fingers while using instruments still dirty from prior procedures.

Because of the high mortality rate associated with surgery, operating rooms earned the nickname “gateways of death.”

Surgeons were still robbing graveyards for cadavers because a broken leg could result in amputation.

Surgeons were able to do lengthier, more intricate procedures after the introduction of anaesthesia in the 1840s.

But the consequences were still terrible because to the postoperative suppuration that Fitzharris depicts so graphically.


This superb biography of Joseph Lister, the 19th-century “hero of surgery,” by British scientific writer Fitzharris offers a fascinating window into the past of medicine.

Lister advocated for the elimination of bacteria and other pathogens in surgical incisions to reduce the risk of potentially fatal infections.

Since the discovery of microorganisms by French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, this strategy has been viewed as revolutionary.

Following his father’s introduction to the microscope, a Quaker, Lister became an advocate for the germ hypothesis of disease and the sterilisation of medical equipment and practitioner hands.