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 ...

Post Mortems by Carla Valentine – a love of the dead, maggots and all

Valentine relished working in a variety of mortuaries and now curates a pathology museum. She presents all the grisly details
When well-meaning adults asked young Carla Valentine what she wanted to be when she grew up they generally recoiled in horror. From the age of nine she was adamant she wanted to be a mortician. For some time, she had been fascinated by death. As a young child, Valentine’s favourite pastime was staging funerals for roadkill victims. Witnessing the death of her grandfather at the age of seven only strengthened her morbid vocation, while the sight of his false teeth landing at her feet seems to have given her a taste for gallows humour. When friends left on their gap year travels, Valentine spent 12 months as an embalmer’s assistant in a funeral parlour. “It was heaven to me,” she says. After studying forensic science she achieved her ambition – ...

Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time review – an exquisite story of scandalous subterfuge

Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield shed fresh light on how a woman in Victorian society adopted a male persona and became the UK’s first female doctor Some people only become famous after they die. When Dr James Barry died in 1865 he became infamous. By all accounts, he had led a colourful life. A renowned military surgeon, he rose to become inspector general of hospitals – one of the highest army medical posts – and served throughout the British empire. Notoriously irascible, Barry fought a duel with a fellow officer, ticked off Florence Nightingale and survived several army inquiries into his conduct. He was a humane doctor, fervent public health reformer and famous for his peculiarities: a teetotaller and vegetarian, he travelled with a menagerie of small animals. Yet all these eccentricities were as nothing compared with the revelations that emerged on Barry’s death. For the brilliant Dr Barry ...

Menagerie by Caroline Grigson review – a rhino drinks three bottles of wine

A richly descriptive account of strange beasts on the streets, which ranges from royal lions and a dodo to ostriches that ate nails Most of us today divide neatly into cat lovers or dog lovers. In the past the choice was a good deal more colourful. Roman settlers in Britain imported peacocks to adorn their villas, while medieval animal lovers favoured monkeys and parrots as pets. The 16th‑century Cambridge scholar John Caius kept a green monkey, a chameleon and a marmoset in his house, and a century later the diarist Samuel Pepys shared his London home with a lion cub and an eagle, which fouled the house “mightily”. By the 18th century every self-respecting aristocrat with a scientific bent boasted a collection of exotic animals, so that our green and pleasant lands were grazed by zebus, moose and zebras, and the country air was rent by the roars of lions and tigers. No visit ...