The Butchering Art by Dr Lindsey Fitzharris (Allen Lane hardback £16.99)

THIS book is subtitled Joseph Lister’s quest to transform the grisly world of Victorian medicine.

When I heard Lindsey Fitzharris was coming to the York Literature Festival, I got very excited. A few years ago I went to an event at York Medical Society, one of those wonderful hidden gems of York where cabinets full of old, brass medical equipment are housed. I love that stuff and find it fascinating. Medical historian Fitzharris is the host of a highly entertaining Youtube channel called Under The Knife, and this book covers similar blood-soaked territory. The prologue outlines the first use of ether as an anaesthetic, and does not hold back on the gory description of an amputation.

The main event of the book is the quest to reduce post-operative infection: this is the driving force of Joseph Lister’s revolution. Lister started his studies in the grimy London of 1844. His father was a pioneer in microscope technology and this aided the student Joseph immensely. He had a brief brush with death himself in the form of smallpox, and also suffered a prolonged period of depression. While working in hospitals, he saw first-hand the devastation caused by infectious diseases, which were more than capable of wiping out a whole hospital ward in a day.

Further work in Edinburgh followed. Fitzharris revels in the horrors of medical procedures of the day, though when we see the brilliant Lister bring about necessary changes for cleaner and safer operations, it is cause for much rejoicing on the reader’s part.

Dr Lindsey Fitzharris will be appearing at York Literature Festival on March 24 at St Peter’s School. More details from:

Review by Philippa Morris Little Apple Bookshop, High Petergate, York