My original The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.
Whether or not you immediately recognize the name, Joseph Lister’s scientific crusade as a surgeon against infectious diseases has made him, quite literally, a household name. You may even have at least one of the antiseptic remedies his work helped to popularize in your bathroom medicine cabinet, in the form of Listerine mouthwash. Oral antiseptics are just one of the products made possible thanks to Lister’s rigorous studies, and modern medicine as a whole forever owes a large debt to this surgeon’s work.
Let’s take a step back to the Victoria era and imagine the conditions of your average hospital, as explored by Lindsey Fitzharris. The corridors reek of urine and feces, on top of the stench of rotting, infected wounds. You’ve broken your leg, a condition that will likely result in the amputation of that limb once infection sets in. Your surgeon is covered in the blood and guts of his previous patients, his surgical tools still clotted with the meat and gore from the last operation. There’s no morphine, no sterilization, and you’re wide awake, biting down on a stick of wood most likely, as your leg is quickly cut away, dirty hands working fast to tie off the veins and arteries before you bleed out. You survive the operation, but whether or not you live long enough to make it out of that diseased hospital and a bed that may not only be home to an infestation of bacteria, but fungus as well – that’s strictly left to chance. Maybe you’ll live, maybe you won’t.
Medically, we’ve come a long, long way since the operating theaters of Joseph Lister’s early career, and this is due in no small part to the accomplishments and perseverance of Lister himself. Obsessed with discovering ways to control inflammation of wounds, Lister began experimenting with various compounds and solutions to ensure his patients survived their operations. At a time when the majority of the medical community refused to accept the premise that microscopic organisms were infecting their patients, Lister embraced the idea of germ theory and began concocting ways to counteract the septic conditions that claimed so many lives.
Fitzharris takes us on a journey of Lister’s life and work, examining the various influences of the men and women surrounding the young Quaker who would forever change the art of medicine. Like Lister, Fitzharris isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and this particular narrative isn’t for the squeamish. While it’s not a consistently graphic and gore-filled work, Fitzharris pulls no punches in the book’s opening, where she graphically details the work, and the working conditions, of Victorian surgeons and life in that era. Other moments allow Fitzharris to display a keen wit, as in one particular anecdote about The Big Stink that might have listeners turning their nose up. Fans of Mary Roach’s Stiff should feel right at home with the topics and tone presented here, and even if The Butchering Art isn’t as consistently engaging as Roach’s earlier work it is still a compelling, highly interesting work in its own right.
British actor Ralph Lister delivers an engaging narration, and one that, to this American’s ears, made the story all that more immersive and authentic thanks to his accent. Lister displays a nice array of accents and voices as he briefly tackles the reading of correspondences to Joseph and news articles of the time, taking us from London, Edinburgh, and eventually the US. I did not hear any flaws in the production quality, and the narration itself is top-notch, making this another win for Audible Studios.
Lindsey Fitzharris presents a compelling account of a very important moment in medical history, providing just enough gory detail to keep me hooked. The next time I find myself in a clean, sanitary hospital stocked with a ready supply of painkillers, I’ll think twice before complaining and offer many a thank you to the spirit of Joseph Lister.
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