Joseph Lister came of age as surgery was being transformed. With the invention of anesthesia, operations could move beyond two-minute leg amputations that occasionally lopped off a testicle in haste. (True story.) But as surgeons poked and prodded deeper into the body, surgery only became more deadly.
It was the infections that killed people.
And it was Lister who first realized that germ theory has profound implications for medicine. In a new biography of Lister, Lindsey Fitzharris argues that the invention of antisepsis marks the true beginning of modern surgery. The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine takes its title from Lister’s own notes, where he writes of his love for “this bloody and butcherly department of the healing art.”
I spoke to Fitzharris about pus, Listerine, and the many things in between. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Sarah Zhang: A while ago, I was anxious about a medical thing, and my boyfriend tried to calm me down by telling me, “There is no better time in history to get surgery than now,” which was weirdly reassuring!
Lindsey Fitzharris: I think that will always be true.
Zhang: Yeah, though reading your book was a brutal, bloody reminder of how much worse it used to be.
Fitzharris: Before Lister, the operating rooms were filled to the rafters with hundreds of spectators who carry all this grime and dirt of everyday life in. This was not a sterile environment. Sometimes it was so crowded on the operating floor that they would have to clear it before the surgeons could actually begin the procedure. These weren’t necessarily medical students or surgeons or doctors themselves. Sometimes they were ticketed spectators who just came in to see the life-and-death struggle play out on the stage.