This is the first of many reviews for books on the Wellcome Prize 2018 Longlist. It definitely isn’t for the squeamish reader as it is the very gruesome biography of Joseph Lister – the father of modern antiseptics.
Often the Victorian era is idealised, romanticised, the reality is that you were going to die, very young, of something that was most certainly preventable. It says something when surgery in your dining room was less likely to kill you than surgery in a hospital. In a hospital surgeons would wear the same clothes between patients, use instruments covered in blood, guts and gore from the previous surgery, they didn’t even think twice about using instruments they’d just used on an autopsy on a (still) living patient. Cross contamination and sepsis were significant causes of death – and leeches couldn’t fix everything. Surgery in the 1800s was a matter of speed – there wasn’t anaesthetic and things had to be done quickly to avoid excess blood loss and trauma, and of those who survived the majority then died because of post-operative infection.
Lister, as a young surgeon, saw a problem and decided he wanted to do something to try and fix it. His antiseptic theories were groundbreaking, and most certainly unpopular. He spent is career building the argument, and in the end even with evidence people were still against him. The backlash he faced seems ridiculous now – in a society which is so germ averse, with antibacterial hand wash on every wall in a hospital and most of us carrying it in a bag! But just 150 years ago it was reality, and he saved so many lives because he persevered.
Medical history isn’t something I can honestly say I’ve read about, obviously I know it’s there, and I knew of Joseph Lister and his importance but actually picking a book up about it is not something I would have done without the Wellcome Prize longlist. Ultimately I’m really glad I read this – Joseph Lister was an incredible man on a mission, and has changed all of our lives because of it.
Dr Lindsey Fitzharris is a compelling story teller, that much is sure. This could have been a very, very dry book but it wasn’t and I think it’s because it was quite a personable account – rather than reading like a textbook it just reads like a biography but at the same time I feel I learnt a lot from it. I’ll definitely be recommending this to my stronger-stomached friends!