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The Butchering Art

Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine
Written by: Lindsey Fitzharris
Narrated by: Ralph Lister
Length: 7 hrs and 54 mins
Categories: History, World
4.5 out of 5 stars (66 ratings)

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Audible Editor Reviews

Editors Select, October 2017

I fear that I might be gaining a reputation around here as the editor most likely to geek out over weird medical history books. But if all the books I listen to are as fascinating as this one, I think I might be okay with that. Sparing no gory detail, Lindsey Fitzharris chronicles the history of surgery in the 19th century - which, at the time, was viewed as a last resort, as it often resulted in infection and even death. That is, until a surgeon named Joseph Lister came along with a discovery that paved the way for the modern, safe surgery we have today. If you're looking for a great nonfiction book to send chills down your spine this October, give this one a try. Ralph Lister sets the perfect dramatic tone for this story - and (fun fact) happens to count Joseph Lister among his ancestors! —Sam, Audible Editor

Publisher's Summary

The gripping story of how Joseph Lister's antiseptic method changed medicine forever

In The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of 19th-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.

©2017 Lindsey Fitzharris (P)2017 Audible, Inc.

What the critics say

"Warning: She spares no detail!" (Erik Larson, best-selling author of Dead Wake)
"Fascinating and shocking." ( Kirkus Reviews)
A top-10 science book of fall 2017 ( Publishers Weekly)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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Reviews - Please select the tabs below to change the source of reviews.

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Great storytelling

I love the way the story is presented and contextualizes the more scientific aspects both within the surgeons personal life as well as the general culture and living conditions of the time. I found the story inspiring and a source of hope that encourages perseverance.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Great history, Awesome Narrator

The history is intriguing and accurate, the narrator makes it entertaining. A great read for anyone interested in medical evolution.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • RW
  • 2018-06-03

Great book!

Loved this book, it was so interesting! The narrator keeps you interested and the book is so well detailed!

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Very good

Extremely interesting biography. I’m not normally interested in the medical field, but I found this book well worth listening to. The narrator is excellent.

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Brings familiar names to life

I am a Canadian-trained doctor. We were taught 'History of Medicine', but the acheivements of Joseph Lister got maybe 10 minutes.
This book brings his contribitions to medicine to life. Lindsey Fitzharris vividly describes mid-nineteenth century Britain and paints a picture of an unsafe, derided profession (surgery - filthy, no anaesthesia) brought to respectability and transformed to a safer, necessary option rather than a desperate last resort.
Her writing is clear and liberally sprinkled with quoted comments from contemporaries. Her exhaustive research is evident. This could have been a very dry academic expose, but it feels lkke an entertaining true-to-life story.
Ralph Lister is an excellent reader. He does a good job of reading quotes, for example, using bang-on accents (English, Scottish, French, American). His general reading voice reminds me of the quality voice-over narrators we get in TV documentaries, but rarrly in Audiobooks.

The very few flaws in this book (there is a LOT of artistic lisence taken; some of Fitzharris' phrases are a little awkward) do not detract from it's excellence. 4.5 stars.

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  • PCR
  • 2019-11-05

Interesting and plain-spoken

Some reviews warned about graphic content: if you cannot handle words like "pus" and "entrails", then avoid. But I found it clearly describes medical practices and in-fighting at the time. The battle to change surgical practices for the better is fascinating.

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Wow a wonderful read!

Great writing with a top notch narrator. The book keeps you entranced! You come to understand the people and the era.

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Very interesting

I enjoyed listening to this book about Lister but the reader has an accent which is a little bit difficult as English is my second language. Good book though.

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I really wanted to like this but...

Ralph Lister's Scottish accent sounds quite Slavic most of the time.
Hard to listen to.

3 of 11 people found this review helpful

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  • WRWF
  • 2017-12-22

Not one boring moment!

If you were unlucky enough to have surgery in an English hospital in the mid 19th century, you often left as a corpse. This book shows the horrible conditions and follows the struggles of Dr. Joseph Lister who ushered in a new era in medicine and in the process saved countless lives. Both author and narrator do a great job of immersing the reader in the Victorian era. There is not one boring moment in this book.

33 of 33 people found this review helpful

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  • Michael Hicks
  • Michigan
  • 2018-01-02

An Important Moment In Medicine

Whether or not you immediately recognize the name, Joseph Lister’s scientific crusade as a surgeon against infectious diseases has made him, quite literally, a household name. You may even have at least one of the antiseptic remedies his work helped to popularize in your bathroom medicine cabinet, in the form of Listerine mouthwash. Oral antiseptics are just one of the products made possible thanks to Lister’s rigorous studies, and modern medicine as a whole forever owes a large debt to this surgeon’s work.

Let’s take a step back to the Victoria era and imagine the conditions of your average hospital, as explored by Lindsey Fitzharris. The corridors reek of urine and feces, on top of the stench of rotting, infected wounds. You’ve broken your leg, a condition that will likely result in the amputation of that limb once infection sets in. Your surgeon is covered in the blood and guts of his previous patients, his surgical tools still clotted with the meat and gore from the last operation. There’s no morphine, no sterilization, and you’re wide awake, biting down on a stick of wood most likely, as your leg is quickly cut away, dirty hands working fast to tie off the veins and arteries before you bleed out. You survive the operation, but whether or not you live long enough to make it out of that diseased hospital and a bed that may not only be home to an infestation of bacteria, but fungus as well – that’s strictly left to chance. Maybe you’ll live, maybe you won’t.

Medically, we’ve come a long, long way since the operating theaters of Joseph Lister’s early career, and this is due in no small part to the accomplishments and perseverance of Lister himself. Obsessed with discovering ways to control inflammation of wounds, Lister began experimenting with various compounds and solutions to ensure his patients survived their operations. At a time when the majority of the medical community refused to accept the premise that microscopic organisms were infecting their patients, Lister embraced the idea of germ theory and began concocting ways to counteract the septic conditions that claimed so many lives.

Fitzharris takes us on a journey of Lister’s life and work, examining the various influences of the men and women surrounding the young Quaker who would forever change the art of medicine. Like Lister, Fitzharris isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and this particular narrative isn’t for the squeamish. While it’s not a consistently graphic and gore-filled work, Fitzharris pulls no punches in the book’s opening, where she graphically details the work, and the working conditions, of Victorian surgeons and life in that era. Other moments allow Fitzharris to display a keen wit, as in one particular anecdote about The Big Stink that might have listeners turning their nose up. Fans of Mary Roach’s Stiff should feel right at home with the topics and tone presented here, and even if The Butchering Art isn’t as consistently engaging as Roach’s earlier work it is still a compelling, highly interesting work in its own right.

British actor Ralph Lister delivers an engaging narration, and one that, to this American’s ears, made the story all that more immersive and authentic thanks to his accent. Lister displays a nice array of accents and voices as he briefly tackles the reading of correspondences to Joseph and news articles of the time, taking us from London, Edinburgh, and eventually the US. I did not hear any flaws in the production quality, and the narration itself is top-notch, making this another win for Audible Studios.

Lindsey Fitzharris presents a compelling account of a very important moment in medical history, providing just enough gory detail to keep me hooked. The next time I find myself in a clean, sanitary hospital stocked with a ready supply of painkillers, I’ll think twice before complaining and offer many a thank you to the spirit of Joseph Lister.

18 of 18 people found this review helpful

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  • Brooke Helton
  • Wilmington, NC
  • 2017-11-06

Educational and Entertaining

I tend to go on fiction binges (3-4 in a row), but always need a non-fiction read before beginning anew.

The Butchering Art for whatever reason popped up in my recommendations, and never one to turn down interesting historical trivia - decided to purchase.

I was pleasantly surprised how the narration flowed in a very story like manner. It didn’t feel like cut and dry historical facts. The author puts you in Joseph Lister’s world - the gore, the fascination, the science and discovery, and the frustrations of a man overcoming both nature and critics.

Ralph Lister has a lovely narrating voice (his accents were done well and there were no monotone moments or areas that were read as if without punctuation).

This isn’t for the faint of heart (it’s starts off in the crude days of surgery after all), but if your a trivia nerd like me - I’d recommend.

24 of 25 people found this review helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 2017-11-03

Fascinating!

Wow, what a listen! This is a truly enlightening book about the realities of surgery and medicine in the 1800’s and what men like Joseph Lister contributed to medical science. They helped change the outcomes for thousands of people. As a nurse, I am forever grateful for their research and for laying the groundwork for modern medicine! Fitzharris describes very bluntly what it was like in the operating theater and the dissection room. Ill admit I couldn’t finish my spaghetti while listening to some of these spots over lunch!

34 of 36 people found this review helpful

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  • jruss1018
  • 2017-12-18

He changed the world!

If you have any interest in medical history, this book is a must! While not an exciting life, Lister changed the world more than he would ever know!

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Labor Lawyer
  • Atlanta
  • 2017-11-13

Highly Accessible Read of Medical History.

I gave one of my rare 5's to this book, not because of its overall literary greatness, but for delivering the rare engrossing read of medical history for the non-medical person. As others have said, the book is not for the squeamish, but one adjusts fairly swiftly. Not only is the history compelling but the historical characters are rendered in multidimensional form and are characters that you often root for. Even the people chronicled for refusal to accept new medical developments are portrayed as normal people and not villainous unenlightened scum.Audible 20 Review Sweepstakes Entry.

17 of 19 people found this review helpful

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  • Taryn
  • Suffern, NY, United States
  • 2019-10-12

Fascinating for those who love medical history

As an RN for 41 yrs I have seen many changes in how we practice medicine. This book was fascinating to me. To think of how far we have come in medicine and science is mind boggling! Surgery without anesthesia, death from infections, the "education" of physicians, hospitals, patients. This is a must read/listen! However, disclaimer is that you need a good "stomach" for grisly details

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Eric J Goratowski
  • 2018-08-16

Amazing Listen

It was a fascinating listen. If gore and medicine fascinate you, you will love it. Beware though, they go into great detail the horrors of not only working on humans...but also live animal testing (those parts made me actually put the book aside for an hour or so). These peoples tenacity and thought are amazing though.... I couldn't stop listening!

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • MJK1
  • Middle West, USA
  • 2017-12-19

Very Interesting Word Of Medical History

I was most impressed with this audio book. It outlines the methodical, diligent work of Joseph Lister in his quest to change the nature of surgery in the 19th century in England and Scotland. As much as it is a history, it manages to maintain a feel of the personal journey of Lister. Throughout the book, the author is able to convey Lister’s own feelings and second thoughts on the topics he is studying. It shows true pioneering not just in anti-sepsis, but it constant refinement of methodology, which is the very foundation of Quality Improvement studies that take place in hospitals today.

The narration was very well done and the story is interesting. Readers without a medical background should have no issues following the narrative.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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  • Jana K.
  • 2017-11-04

Very well done:)

Fantastic book. Very well written. Classy and smart. Also, fantastic narrator:) More medical history, please:)

8 of 9 people found this review helpful