Book Review | The Butchering Art

I am always interested in everything Victorian history. I actually focused on it back when I was a European history major in college. I’ve read about Victorian culture and society and crime. But one thing I hadn’t read too much about: medicine. Victorian medicine was both fascinating and brutal. And while I really enjoyed learning about it, it made me incredibly glad to be born after hospital sanitation became a thing.

(All reviews are spoiler-free unless otherwise noted.)


(From Goodreads) In 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 Butchering Art focuses on the renowned surgeon Joseph Lister and his discovery of why so many patients were dying after seeking medical treatment. It’s something we all know about now: germs. But back when Lister began practicing medicine, things were very, very different (and gross). Doctors washing hands between patients? Not a thing. Puerperal fever killed a lot of new mothers because doctors sometimes wouldn’t even bother to get the blood off their hands from performing an amputation or autopsy before delivering a baby. Any romantic notions of living in the Victorian era that survived my studying Jack the Ripper died with this book. Just no.

As someone living in the twenty-first century, it’s really interesting to try ad imagine a time when doctors didn’t think germs were an issue. Even when they were aware of venereal diseases (which so many people had back then), they didn’t understand why putting a patient suffering from something like scarlet fever in an open ward somehow killed all the other patients. Victorian medicine was a dangerous place. Keep in mind sanitation in general back then was not really a thing. The city of London was centered around an actual river of poop. In 1858, the Thames was so full of shit (literally) that the smell shut down the Houses of Parliament. This lovely event went down in history as “The Great Stink”. In 1878, a boat crash in the Thames resulted in about 650 people drowning in the 75 MILLION gallons of raw sewage that had been dumped in the river an hour earlier. Now that we’ve had the most disgusting history lesson ever, you can probably imagine what life was like back then. And hospitals were no different.

If this review is already making you feel squeamish, this might not be the book for you. But, if you like weird history and can put up with a little bit of blood, this was such an interesting read. I’m guessing you haven’t heard of Joseph Lister until now (don’t worry, I hadn’t either), but we owe him so much. Because now, we can go to the doctor when we’re sick and not end up dying of something unrelated because your doctor wasn’t a fan of soap. Or end up in the hands of an illiterate surgeon who had never washed the knife he was about to cut into you with. If anything, The Butchering Art will make you incredibly grateful that you were born after the 1920s.


★★★★☆ – The Butchering Art is an incredibly interesting read. I learned a lot from it, and would definitely recommend it if you’d like to learn about a lesser known part of history. Just don’t make the mistake I did and try to read it while you’re eating lunch. Bad idea, trust me.

The Butchering Art is available in paperback now! You can pick up a copy on Amazon or in bookstores.

To get the audiobook for free, use this link to sign up for a free trial of Audible and choose The Butchering Art as one of your two free books.

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9 thoughts on “Book Review | The Butchering Art

  1. What an entertaining and interesting review matey! I recently read a book about how disgusting Versailles and other palaces were. Poop behind doors. Having to change palaces so the poop could be cleaned out. I think it is interesting that people want to live or visit different eras. Due to the bad medicine and the stank, I am perfectly glad to live in the now. I might rather want to go into the future instead. I had heard of Lister but the book I read only focused on how he was mocked in the beginning of his career and did not discuss any of his later career. This sounds like one to add to the list. The cover certainly pops too. Arrr!
    x The Captain

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! Yeah, things ere disgusting back then. Lister was pretty interesting. There was another doctor who made his surgeons dip their hands in a bucket of water between patients and the fatality rate went down… and they still didn’t figure it out.

      Hope you enjoy this one!


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