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The Butchering Art

(Scientific American)


Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine. (Don't read this while you eat!)


Authors: Lindsey Fitzharris

Genre: Medical History

Reader Appeal: Mature Teens & Adults


I bet most of you have never heard of Joseph Lister, I had not. But after reading The Butchering Art, Dr. Lister is my hero, and he may be yours as well. 


You see before Joseph Lister, surgeons rarely washed their tools, or their hands, or their patients. Yeah pretty gross stuff and the author does not hold back on graphic descriptions, so I’ve warned you. This book is full of icky stuff, I loved it! My husband who does not enjoy my penchant for reading aloud what I consider best parts, asked my kindly to not read this to him, I obliged.

Born in 1827 in England little Joseph became fascinated with the microscope, a tool that was considered a novelty but one that his father has been working on to improve with better lenses. Joseph registered as a surgical student at Royal College of Surgeons when he was 26, it was then he began to see what others didn’t, that is that cleanliness was the key to keeping infections away. It’s hard to believe now but most of his contemporaries thought he was crazy. It was believed that bad air caused infections in wounds and all one needed to do is air out the hospital once in a while.

He toured around the world sharing what he knew was true, he was laughed at and called dangerous. The American doctors went as far as calling him mentally unhinged. But eventually Joseph’s techniques were accepted in his lifetime. He was honored, knighted and had building names after him.


A little tidbit: one of his students who admired him greatly named his antiseptic formula after him, "Listerine."


I for one am glad Joseph was tenacious. Now wash your hands!


Let's Talk About It

Use these questions to spark discussion among family members who are interested in this book:


• It was hard for Joseph to go against his contemporaries. In the beginning he was not well respected. What in your life do you believe to be true that your family or friends do not? How do you deal with the pressure it causes?

• When Joseph started in medicine most surgeries, including amputations, were done without anesthesia. What are your top medical discoveries?

• Joseph never lost his desire to learn and perfect his art. What are some things you want to learn more about? What are you going to do about it.



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