My interest in medical history was sparked at the age of fourteen when I started studying Medicine Through Time for GCSE history (favourite school history module ever), where we romped through at least two thousand years of medical history in the course of relatively few lessons. Somewhere along the way, we learnt that Joseph Lister popularised antiseptics in medical treatment in Britain, leading to a dramatic reduction in deaths from post-operative infection, but that was about all. This book is a great, entertaining and immensely readable summary of how Lister came to accept Louis Pasteur’s controversial germ theory and how he put Pasteur’s findings into practice in hospitals across Britain, following in the footsteps of other pioneers of surgical hygiene such as Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian physician who was eventually hounded out of his job for insisting on thorough hand washing, and died in a mental asylum.
I was a little concerned about the potential goriness of this book, but was relieved to find it less explicit than I had expected. While Fitzharris doesn’t shy away from depicting some of the excruciating detail of nineteenth-century surgery without antiseptic, and the horrors of infection in dirty and overcrowded wards, the book never feels gratuitous or titillating, and some of the very worst incidents are described as briefly as possible. Nevertheless, we are transported vividly to an utterly unfamiliar world, feeding my belief that the gulf between the early and late nineteenth century is in fact wider than the gulf between the late nineteenth and late twentieth. Life is so cheap in this period and the slightest wound can spell the end, as a number of unlucky surgeons find out for themselves.
Fitzharris is especially good at swiftly contextualising the world in which Lister lived and worked for readers who may not be especially familiar with nineteenth-century history. I currently lecture on the social and economic history of Victorian Britain, but still appreciated the way in which Fitzharris’s book filled in a number of gaps in my knowledge of the history of the medical establishment, and surgery as a discipline, during this period. It’s easy for me to feel a bit impatient with popular histories of periods or subjects that I know well, but Fitzharris strikes exactly the right note, writing clearly and accessibly with no dumbing down.
This book thoroughly deserves its place on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, and I would recommend it to historians and non-historians alike.