Tomorrow the six titles on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be revealed. I’ve managed to read one more from the longlist since my last batch.
The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris
Surgery was a gory business with a notably high fatality rate well into the nineteenth century. Surgeons had the fastest hands in the West, but their victims were still guaranteed at least a few minutes of utter agony as they had a limb amputated or a tumor removed, and the danger wasn’t over after they were sewn up either: most patients soon died from hospital infections. The development of anesthetics and antiseptic techniques helped to change all that.
Fitzharris opens with the vivid and rather gruesome scene of a mid-thigh amputation performed by Robert Liston at University College Hospital in London in 1846. This surgery was different, though: it only took 28 seconds, but the patient felt nothing thanks to the ether he had been administered. He woke up a few minutes later asking when the procedure would begin. In the audience that day was Joseph Lister, who would become one of Britain’s most admired surgeons.
Lister came from a Quaker family and, after being educated at University College London, started his career in Edinburgh. Different to many medical professionals of the time, he was fascinated by microscopy and determined to find out what caused deadly infections. Carbolic acid and catgut ligatures were two of Lister’s main innovations that helped to fight infection. In fact, whether we realize it or not, his legacy is forever associated with antiseptics: Listerine mouthwash (invented in 1879) is named after him, and the Johnson brothers of Johnson & Johnson fame started their business mass-producing sterile surgical dressings after attending one of Lister’s lectures.
My interest tailed off a bit after the first third, as the book starts going into more depth about Lister’s work and personal life: he married his boss’s daughter and moved from Edinburgh to Glasgow and then back to London. However, the best is yet to come: the accounts of the surgeries he performed on his sister (a mastectomy that bought her three more years of life) and Queen Victoria (removing an orange-sized abscess from under her arm) are terrific. The chapter on treating the queen in secret at Balmoral Castle in 1871 was my overall favorite.
I was that kid who loved going to Civil War battlefields and medical museums and looking at all the different surgical saws and bullet fragments in museum cases, so I reveled in the gory details here but was not as interested in the biographical material. Do be sure you have a strong stomach before you try reading the prologue over a meal. This is a comparable read to The Remedy, about the search for a cure to tuberculosis.
Now, I’ve still only read half of the longlisted titles so far, so it’s hard to make any solid guesses. However, the below fall somewhere between wishes and informed predictions:
- In Pursuit of Memory by Joseph Jebelli: A definitive treatment of an epidemic of our time, Alzheimer’s disease. The neuroscientist author achieves the right balance between history and research on the one hand and personal stories readers can relate to on the other.
- The White Book by Han Kang: The only fiction title from the longlist that I haven’t read at least part of. This is also on this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist and has been well received. From what I can tell, the health theme seems stronger than that of Stay with Me or Midwinter Break, and it would also be nice for one title in translation to make the shortlist.
- With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix: As I said in my review last week, this is an excellent all-round guide to preparation for death, based around touching patient stories plus the author’s experience in palliative care and CBT. Practical, compassionate and helpful.
- I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell: For me, this book stands out as the one that most clearly illuminates the effects of illness, medical treatment, and other threats to life and limb in the course of an ordinary existence. I’d be very happy to see it win the whole thing.
- EITHER The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris OR The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman: I reckon one history of science title deserves to be on there; I think Wadman might have the slight edge.
- EITHER To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell OR Behave by Robert Sapolsky: The Wellcome Prize loves big books investigating human tendencies and possibilities. I find the thought of either of these daunting, but I know they would also be illuminating. I’d prefer to read the O’Connell, but I’d give the edge to Sapolsky.