Book Club: The Butchering Art

alt: A doodle stands in a morgue, reading “The Butchering Art”

Picture this: a young surgeon dissects a cadaver in the basement of a teaching hospital. With his bare hands, he rummages around in decomposing organs, palpates the heart, and examines the brain. Then he wipes his hands on his bloody apron, walks upstairs to the maternity ward, and with those same hands… delivers a baby. Dun dun duuun!

That’s just one of many gruesome scenes in Lindsey Fitzharris’s book, The Butchering Art. Fitzharris shows us surgery in the bad old days before germ theory and antiseptics, tracing the path of medical progress through the central figure of Joseph Lister. That’s right — the man who inspired Listerine!

As Lister searches for a way to prevent post-operative infections, Fitzharris treats us to plenty of shocking historical details — including a surgeon who amputated a leg so fast he also lopped off a testicle. But what really stands out in this tale is the importance of 2 basic rules of public health:

  • Use evidence-based practices
  • Share information with partners

The case of Ignaz Semmelweis is a great example. Fitzharris explains that this doctor figured out how to prevent puerperal (or childbed) fever a full 20 years before Lister announced his antiseptic system. Semmelweis guessed that surgeons were transferring “cadaverous particles” from corpses to laboring mothers, so he set up a handwashing station. And boom! No more childbed fever.

But did Semmelweis become a public health hero? Was childbed fever a thing of the past? Sadly, dear readers, that’s a big nope. No one believed him, and he died in a mental institution “raging about childbed fever and the doctors who refused to wash their hands.”

Lister faced much the same resistance from the medical community when he introduced his antiseptic system, and way too many people died of preventable infections before the health care system got its act together.

The good news is, we can learn from this gory history lesson. Next time the evidence supports a new way of doing things (like, say, using plain language in your health communications), work with partners to create policies that fit the facts. It’s much more productive than putting progressive thinkers in an asylum.

The bottom line: Read The Butchering Art to learn how antiseptics made surgery a lot less disgusting.

Tweet about it: How did public health pioneers help surgery clean up its act? @CommunicateHlth reads “The Butchering Art” by @DrLindseyFitz:


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