Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Book Review: The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

I like science books and I like medical books, but at times, they can be a slog. Not this one though! I think Ms. Fitzharris's book is the most readable science/medical book I've ever read. I breezed through it.

In grade school we all spent about one day learning about germ theory and, as kids, we dismiss it as it's crazy to think that people didn't understand that germs caused illnesses. And then in high school we get one paragraph in history class about how President Garfield died not from being shot, but from dozens of doctors (and others) sticking their dirty, unwashed fingers into his gunshot wound unnecessarily, giving him a raving infection which did kill him. But that's pretty much it for most of us. If you're lucky, you'll know that Listerine is named after a Doctor Lister, but that's it.

Turns out Dr. Lister was an important and fascinating man. He came of age and went to medical school at a time before germ theory was widely known and accepted, when the best skill a surgeon could have is speed. He studied under a Dr. Liston whose claim to fame was that he could take off a leg in under a minute. Sawing through a femur is really hard, so that was a real feat. Hundreds of people would pack into the surgical theaters to watch his prowess with the saw. But Lister saw the theory in Pasteur's research into germs and understood that it was correct and it was what was killing people. It took a very, very long time to catch on. (Garfield dies decades after Lister had been publishing his findings.) He developed a bath of acid to use to clean all the instruments and everything in the operating room, including the hands of the surgeons and assistants, and his death rates went down. To us, it's a no-brainer, but he had to argue against men who had been wearing the same unwashed surgical coat (sometimes even passed down from multiple other doctors--still unwashed) as a point of pride for decades. It was an uphill battle. Thankfully, he did eventually win over hearts and minds, but it took a horrifically long time.

Steeped in Victorian medicine and history, this biography is so smoothly and eloquently written, that it flies by. I zipped through it in short order, and learned a lot along the way.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

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