The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris review – grisly medicine

Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery, is the hero of this story of Victorian doctors with grubby hands and infected knives

Long after William Hogarth depicted a gaggle of bewigged and urine-tasting physicians under the title The Company of Undertakers in 1736, doctors were a popular target of humour and ridicule. This was hardly surprising, as the reality of their practice was even more absurd, and more tragic. By the early 19th century, skilled surgeons could amputate a leg in under 30 seconds but prided themselves on never washing their hands or instruments, kept their suturing needles in their frock coat lapels and wore aprons so stiffened with dried blood they could stand up on their own.

The acclaimed Victorian surgeon Robert Liston pioneered the use of ether in Britain, rendering surgery pain-free for millions, in an amputation in 1846. Yet this landmark operation might never have been necessary ...