It will surprise no one that surgery was dangerous in the nineteenth century (and, as a result, every century before that). Not the surgery itself, but the aftermath when infections were likely, causing death rates to soar. Here you will read about the operating theatres and can easily imagine being in the room as surgeons worked quickly and without anesthesia. I am grossed out very easily by all manner of bodily fluids, so there were definitely parts I had to skim or I would have been gagging. If you suffer from a similarly quick gag-reflex I would still recommend this highly engaging and illuminating work, and skim over certain parts like I did.
Not until Dr. Joseph Lister came along would this seemingly complex mystery be solved - what caused infections post-op, and how could they be prevented? We are fully immersed in his world from the start. In addition to front row seats in the operating theatres, we go along to the dreary and disgusting hospitals, dead houses, even graveyards to procure bodies for the med students to practice on. Hospitals were considered the last option, especially if you were wealthy, due to the filthy conditions, and were basically where one went to die instead of heal.
Surgeons in particular were a nasty bunch. They certainly did not wash their hands, nor their tools or clothing as they went from patient to patient, living or dead. At the time, the death rate post-op was a ghastly 90%. Congrats on surviving a painful and bloody surgery, your reward is a painful and less-bloody death. The idea of germs, something so small they could not be seen, being the root cause of so much death was unfathomable and it would take several long, arduous years for Lister to convince colleagues of his discoveries.
Yet this is the world Dr. Lister wanted to be part of and we should be eternally grateful for that fact. I can't even begin to count the number of lives saved due to Dr. Lister's experiments and the confidence he had in himself that he had found not only the cause of so many needless deaths, but also the cure. With the discovery of those pesky and microscopic germs, the field of medicine/healthcare was completely transformed - though not without struggle on Lister's part to get his colleagues to see the error of their ways and convince them of the merits of cleanliness.
Dr. Lister focused on the cleaning of surgical tools and operating tables, as well as cleanliness of hospitals and specifically the beds in which patients were supposed to recover. Often patients returned to lice and bedbugs, and were somehow expected to recover in such conditions.
Dr. Lister began experimenting with the best ways to rid both surgeons and patients of the germs he was certain were causing so many deaths. He conducted experiments and took extensive notes on what worked and what did not. He put his antiseptic theories to test by creating a system in which he used carbolic acid to clean both his hands and surgical equipment. He also used the acid to soak gauze, then he applied gauze to the would post-surgery.
As Dr. Lister found success with his new system, he faced extreme backlash from colleagues in the medical community - big surprise, many did not believe that germs were the root cause of the problem. This would prove to be his toughest battle, as few surgeons were willing to come around to his way of thinking.
Overall I found this to be an incredibly captivating account of the practices of medicine in the 19th century. The advances Dr. Lister made still impact us today. I admire his work greatly; it would have very easy for him to give up, given the pushback he received from others. Yet he persevered and we should be grateful for that.