The Butchering Art – L. Fitzharris

I am not necessarily a big fan of time travel. Sure, I’d go, but only if you could guarantee that I would come out on the other end as free, wealthy man. Everyone else’s existence, let’s be real, probably sucked compared to my cushy 21st century life. Or would you really like to go back to the 16th century and become a barmaid? Nah, I didn’t think so.

After reading ‘The Butchering Art’, I will add one more condition to the white, free, wealthy, male list: I want to be healthy and accident-free. Because being injured in the past frankly sucked.

Or, as Fitzharris puts it in her excellent book: “The best that can be said about Victorian hospitals is that they were a slight improvement over their Georgian predecessors. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement when one considers that a hospital’s ‘Chief Bug Catcher’ – whose job it was to rid the mattresses of lice – was paid more than its surgeons.” 

And just in case you weren’t disgusted enough by the description of grimy dirty hospitals, the book also provides plenty of examples for just how gory surgeries were back then.  I don’t think this was done to be bloodthirsty – more than anything else, it gave me a sense just how bad things were back then – and just how badly people must have hurt in order to submit to any kind of surgery.

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So this is an appendicitis. Please note the lack of hospital gowns, surgery table, instruments, suspicious lack of water, and the no shits given by the surgeon. 

Just one random bit of trivia to show this – Jack the Ripper’s murder weapon of choice was a surgeon’s knife.

Surgery, back in those days, really was closer to butchery than high art – there was no anaesthesia, no professional body watching over professional qualifications, and, most importantly, no understanding of germ theory.

I generally think that people underestimate just how dirty, grimy and smelly the past must have been – but never more so than in hospitals.

So even if you survived the surgery, you’d then linger around in dirty linens. No wonder hospitals were known as ‘Houses of Death’. 

It’s no coincidence that this book plays at the same time as Ghost Map– it’s the same problem, fundamentally. Things began to change only slowly, and ironically, not necessarily to the better.

Ether got adopted as powerful anaesthesia throughout Europe, but this had a perverse consequence: Whereas before, speed during a surgery was of the essence because the patient kept thrashing about, ether took this motivation away. Surgeries became more bloody and deadly instead of less.

Enter our unsung hero (seriously, I never heard of him before this book, and I feel like there should be at least a statue of him somewhere!) – Joseph Lister.

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Our friend Joe was a surgeon, and he was horrified by the high mortality rate of his patients. People back then knew something was wrong, but they just didn’t know where to start looking! (Well, they also thought pus was a sign of good healing, so …y’know.)

Joseph Lister heard about the ground breaking work of Louis Pasteur in France and his work on germ theory. But it was Lister who put this theory into practise – by starting a rigorous antiseptic regimen in his hospital in Glasgow. Doctors now had to wash their hands before touching a patient. Surgical instruments were cleaned before patients – and dressings of wounds were changed regularly. All these things that now are evident to us, we do thanks to Joseph Lister.

The rest, as they say, is history. Well, not quite. Two things that should be mentioned: Lister’s work was criticized by the medical establishment of the day, but his results were simply too convincing to pass by undetected. Still, it might have taken longer for his findings to be implemented, if not for Queen Victoria – she underwent surgery on her arm by Lister. The wound got infected, but Lister’s regimen of washing, disinfecting and cleaning the wound helped the Queen to recover. Lister used to say that he was ‘the only person to put a knife into the Queen.’ So he was not only a medical hero, but also had a great sense of humour.

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Looking slightly better now, right? (Yes, that’s Lister in the middle, and the weird apparatus on the right is to ‘clean the air & wound’ 


As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but think of Do No Harm – the memoirs of a modern-day brain surgeon. I think Lister would have been riveted to hear what modern medicine as able to do. In his days, it was taken as a given that certain regions of the body were off-limits to surgeons – including the brain and the torso!

Humanity has made astonishing progress in medicine in the past 150 years. We have come so far – from mouldy bed sheets to surgical robots!

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