As you know I usually only feature fiction books on acrimereadersblog. I don’t read an awful lot of non-fiction. However there are some exceptions to this, and The Butchering Art was one. Author Lindsey Fitzharris was talking at the York Literature Festival but unfortunately I was unable to attend. So when I was invited to take part in the Blog Tour for the Wellcome Book Prize I jumped at the chance to read a copy of her book.
The Wellcome Book Prize celebrates the best new books that illuminate our encounters with health and medicine. The Butchering Art tells the story of Joseph Lister. In the 19th Century operating theatres were known as ‘gateways to death’ over half the people who had surgery died on the table. Lister was one of the first to believe that germs caused death and that antiseptic could kill them. This was a shocking claim in an era where surgeons didn’t even bother washing their hands before cutting people open! With lots of graphich detail, The Butchering Art is a fascinating tale of Victorian hospitals, where the cleaners were paid more than the surgeons.
The following extract gives a flavour of the book which is available on amazon.
Lister escaped many of the dangerous medical treatments that some of his contemporaries experienced while growing up, because his father believed in vis medicatrix naturae, or “the healing power of nature.” Like many Quakers, Joseph Jackson was a therapeutic nihilist, adhering to the idea that Providence played the most important role in the healing process. He believed that administering foreign substances to the body was unnecessary and sometimes downright life-threatening. In an age when most medicinal concoctions contained highly toxic drugs like heroin, cocaine, and opium, Joseph Jackson’s ideas might not have been too wide of the mark. Because of the household’s dearly held principles, it came as a surprise to everyone in the family when young Lister announced that he wanted to be a surgeon— a job that involved physically intervening in God’s handiwork. None of his relations, except a distant cousin, were doctors. And surgery, in particular, carried with it a certain social stigma even for those outside the Quaker community. The surgeon was very much viewed as a manual laborer who used his hands to make his living, much like a key cutter or plumber today. Nothing better demonstrated the inferiority of surgeons than their relative poverty. Before 1848, no major hospital had a salaried surgeon on its staff, and most surgeons (with the exception of a notable few) made very little money from their private practices. But the impact a medical career might have on his social and financial standing later in life was far from Lister’s mind when he was a boy. During the summer of 1841, at the age of fourteen, he wrote to his father, who was away attending to the family’s wine business, “When Mamma was out I was by myself and had nothing to do but draw skeletons.” Lister requested a sable brush so that he could “shade another man to shew the rest of the muscles.” He drew and labelled all the bones in the cranium, as well as those of the hands, from both the front and the back. Like his father, young Lister was a proficient artist— a skill that would later help him to document in startling detail his observations made during his medical career.