When Queen Victoria fell seriously ill during a stay at Balmoral Castle in 1871, the head of surgery at the University of Edinburgh, Joseph Lister, was summoned to remove a worsening abscess. As he operated, a mist of carbolic acid was sprayed into the air to kill germs and prevent infection – a controversial antiseptic technique of his own invention.
Her Majesty, of course, survived, and later thanked her saviour by making him a baronet. “I am the only man,” Lister would later quip to his medical students, “who has ever stuck a knife into the Queen.”
The story of Lister’s decades-long battle against an unseen enemy – bacteria – and of his battles against a sceptical medical profession is told in this fast-paced, thoroughly researched book by Lindsey Fitzharris, an Oxford scholar, blogger and expert on the dark, disturbing world of medical history.
This is one book you can judge by its title – and it’s not for the squeamish. Fitzharris leaves little to the imagination with her vivid descriptions of bloodstained operating tables, hospital wards teeming with contagious disease and dissecting rooms where rats nibble on discarded body parts. The stench of death seems to linger on the pages.
This may read like the jacket copy of a gothic horror novel, but it was the gruesome reality of medicine and surgery in the 19th century. And the pioneering Lister did more than anyone to force doctors to, literally, clean up their act.
The use of anaesthetics, beginning in the 1840s, spared patients from excruciating pain during surgery, but survival rates remained low. Post-operative infections took many of the lives surgeons had struggled to save. A hospital was “a house of death”, one admitted, from which few patients emerged alive.
Doctors were slow to accept that germs were killing their patients. A major culprit was their own unsanitary practices – shockingly, few bothered to wash their hands or instruments between operations.
“Lister came to the vital realization that he couldn’t prevent a wound from having contact with germs,” Fitzharris writes. “So he turned his attention to finding a means of destroying micro-organisms within the wound itself, before infection could set in.”
The answer was carbolic acid, a coal-tar derivative known to suppress the odour of sewage. Lister perfected a device to spray it into the air to kill germs during surgery, and used acid-treated dressings as wounds and incisions healed.
Fitzharris documents her hero’s long struggle against naysayers and rivals, as well as the setbacks he faced in his personal and professional life, in an engaging journey into the past. This is popular history at its best.
In 1877, when Lister left Scotland after a quarter-century for a prestigious post in London, he paid a final visit to his patients in Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary. “No longer a house of death,” his biographer notes, “it was a house of healing.” It was also a testament to the accomplishments of a man who saved the life of a monarch – and countless others.
*The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest To Transform The Grisly World Of Victorian Medicine, by Lindsey Fitzharris, Allen Lane, £16.99
*Dean Jobb is the author of Empire Of Deception, the stranger-than-fiction story of a 1920s Chicago swindler. His next book will recreate the crimes of Dr Thomas Neill Cream, a Scottish-born serial killer who preyed on prostitutes in 1890s London.