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‘The Butchering Art:

Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine’

Lindsey Fitzharris

Allen Lane

The spellbinding story of a visionary British surgeon who changed medicine forever.

In ‘The Butchering Art’, historian Lindsey Fitzharris recreates a critical turning point in the history of medicine, when Joseph Lister transformed surgery from a brutal, harrowing practice to the safe, vaunted profession we know today.

Victorian operating theatres were known as ‘gateways of death’, Fitzharris reminds us, since half of those who underwent surgery didn’t survive the experience. This was an era when a broken leg could lead to amputation, and surgeons were still known to ransack cemeteries to find cadavers. And in squalid, overcrowded hospitals, doctors remained baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high.

At a time when surgery couldn’t have been more dangerous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: Joseph Lister, a young Quaker surgeon. By making the audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection – and could be treated with antiseptics – he changed the history of medicine forever. With a novelist’s eye for detail, Fitzharris brilliantly conjures up the grisly world of Victorian surgery, revealing how one of Britain’s greatest medical minds finally brought centuries of savagery, sawing and gangrene to an end.


  • A serious work of research from a first-time author. Written in a lively, engaging style – and with no gruesome detail spared – Fitzharris transports her reader to the pivotal moment at which Joseph Lister transformed the worlds of science and medicine.

Wolfson History Prize judges