The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris covers the life of Joseph Lister and the evolution of forensic sciences in Victorian times.
Joseph Lister (April 5, 1827- Feb 10, 1912) was a UK surgeon who cleaned up operating procedures, the operating room, hospitals, and in doing so, saved many lives. He married Agnes Syme in 1856. The couple had no children.
In the 19th century, many people died from infections caused by unsanitary conditions. Some conditions were understood, some were discovered, and some were mind-boggling. As Fitzharris writes, “in the 1840s, operative surgery was a filthy business fraught with hidden dangers. It was to be avoided at all costs.” Surgery was painful. There was no general anesthetic that was safe and foolproof. There was no protocol for hygiene. There were no sterile instruments and operating rooms. Surgery was a gamble but sometimes the only option you had left.
From an early age, Joseph Lister was fascinated by his dad’s compound microscope. Every aspect of plants, animals, and people had infinite particles for him to explore, take notes, and draw. I hope that his notebooks will one day become available (if preserved) just like you can see the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Lister comes from a Quaker family. His father, Joseph Jackson Lister, had a wine business together with his father. Joseph Jackson Lister began building his own microscope and in 1830 presented the achromatic lens. That is is a lens that transmits light without separating it into constituent colors. Joseph became interested in the microscope when as a child he saw an air bubble trapped in glass.
Joseph Lister’s academic path is extremely interesting to explore, to see why he moved from one university to another. During his academic years, many thought that the microscope did not serve medical sciences. Lister however, was convinced it would. Many eyed it with suspicion not understanding what small particles can teach you about the human body.
Lister kept struggling with the number of patients who died despite a successful surgery. During his life he started a clean-up of instruments, surgery rooms, started the routine to wash hands when doctors passed from one ward to another especially the maternity ward. Morality rates went down but still, they were too high. How could he stop infections?
Lister is behind the mixture of carbolic acid with water and later oil to disinfect the skin around incisions. The book describes how he did it and how that method was received by the medical community. It spells out the struggle to introduce something new. Despite several setbacks, Lister kept working on his antiseptic treatments. He also started to experiment with different materials to use as sutures: single thread, double thread, silk, or intestines.
During his surgery on Queen Victoria, Lister used a carbolic spray to keep her, himself, the instruments, and the air around the Queen as sterile as possible. If you click here you can see on the sketch what that spray looked liked.
Needless to say, Lister was a popular professor wherever he taught and his students traveled from around the world to attend his classes. His work rang in an era of cleanliness, carbolic acid cleaning, improved personal hygiene while inspiring others.
Dr. Joseph Joshua Lawrence, after attending Lister’s class, made his own version of an antiseptic by adding thymol, eucalyptol, alcohol, and mentol. Our mouthwash Listerine was born. However, Lawrence was not an entrepreneur. In 1881, Lawrence met Jordan Wheat Lambert. Lambert bought the rights from Lawrence and started marketing the antiseptic. Listerine was introduced to the dental profession in 1895 and became a household name.
Robert Wood Johnson too attended a lecture by Lister and like Lawrence, he too was inspired. Together with his two brothers James and Edward, he founded a company to produce the first sterile surgical wound dressings and sutures and prepared it for mass distribution. The company Johnson & Johnson was born.
Fitzharris wrote a fascinating book not just covering the professional life of Lister but also his personal life. She meticulously details his struggle to make academic circles see that medicine is an evolving science where nothing can be taken for granted.
The book is well written, has a good pace, is filled with personal details about Lister, and his correspondence with his dad. There are notes and an index in the back. Highly recommended reading!
My other book reviews are here.