The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris

The Butchering Art book cover

Rating: 4/5

What It’s About:

The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery on the eve of profound transformation. She conjures up early operating theaters–no place for the squeamish–and surgeons, working before anesthesia, who were lauded for their speed and brute strength. These medical pioneers knew that the aftermath of surgery was often more dangerous than their patients’ afflictions, and they were baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high. At a time when surgery couldn’t have been more hazardous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon named Joseph Lister, who would solve the deadly riddle and change the course of history.

Fitzharris dramatically recounts Lister’s discoveries in gripping detail, culminating in his audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection–and could be countered by antiseptics. Focusing on the tumultuous period from 1850 to 1875, she introduces us to Lister and his contemporaries–some of them brilliant, some outright criminal–and takes us through the grimy medical schools and dreary hospitals where they learned their art, the deadhouses where they studied anatomy, and the graveyards they occasionally ransacked for cadavers.

Eerie and illuminating, The Butchering Art celebrates the triumph of a visionary surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world.


The Review

The Butchering Art was my first non-fiction book of 2023! It did not disappoint. As a fan of medical history, this book was very engaging for me. My favorite part of this book was all of the historical elements of Victorian society. The author did an amazing job building up the time period and I learned so much about the Victorian Era. Different aspects of Victorian life were woven into the book, along with implications on how they related to medical knowledge and treatment at the time. Some topics that were especially interesting to me were hospital management, germ theory, obstetrical medicine, and medical treatment during war.

The descriptions of injuries and surgery methods were gory and gruesome…but in a good way. I enjoyed comparing surgery practices and procedures is in modern times against how surgery was practiced in Victorian times. “The Butchering Art” is a perfect title for the book. There were several figures that played a part in the story, which added to the fun of reading. I also liked that the book had a linear storyline that followed Lister’s medical education all the way through to the end of his impressive career. Lister was depicted as a dynamic character with many emotions and talents. Despite all of the pushback he received from the medical community, Lister never wavered in his dedication to the profession and well being of the general public.

Readers who have an interest in medical history or Victorian history would enjoy reading The Butchering Art. I’m very happy that I had the opportunity to read this enlightening book and look forward to trying out more non-fiction books this year.

Interesting Links:

BB Science Article – Joseph Lister and the grim reality of Victorian surgery by Alexander McNamara

NPR Episode – ‘The Butchering Art’: How A 19th Century Physician Made Surgery Safer


Have you read this book? I’d love to hear what you thought.

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