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"The Establishment Drew Its Knives" Against Lister's Handwashing



(p. C5) Lindsey Fitzharris's slim, atmospheric "The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine" has its share of resplendent gore. . . . The book is an imperfect first effort, stronger at the beginning than at the end, and a bit workaday when it isn't freaky -- it floats less on narrative momentum than on an armada of curious details. But the story it tells is one of abiding fascination, in part because it involves a paradigm shift so basic, so seemingly obvious, that one can scarcely believe the paradigm needed shifting in the first place.


. . .


The real drama in Lister's story comes from the resistance he faced to his theories. After he published the last article in a five-part series in the medical journal The Lancet, carefully outlining his system for killing "septic germs," the establishment drew its knives. The inventor of chloroform wrote under a pseudonym to complain that Lister was taking credit for having discovered the miracles of carbolic acid. (He wasn't.) Others accused him of fearmongering, dismissing Pasteur's germ theory as pure hooey. The editor of The Lancet himself refused to use the word "germ."

"It was difficult for many surgeons at the height of their careers," Fitzharris writes, "to face the fact that for the past 15 or 20 years they might have been inadvertently killing patients by allowing wounds to become infected with tiny, invisible creatures."


. . .


There were, after all, others -- most famously the Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis. In 1847, he hypothesized that puerperal fever was spread by doctors carrying "cadaverous particles" from the deadhouse to the obstetrics ward at Vienna's General Hospital. When he set up a basin filled with chlorinated water and enjoined his colleagues to do something radical after autopsies -- wash their hands -- mortality rates plummeted.

The establishment still rejected Semmelweis's hypothesis when he published it. Over the years, Fitzharris writes, his behavior grew increasingly erratic. He was eventually committed to an asylum.

Lister, meanwhile, lived to a ripe old age and got a mouthwash named after him. Timing, personality and geopolitics always help determine who earns the garlands for innovation. But it's sad to think that Semmelweis never lived to see the vindication of his theory. He died in that asylum, possibly from an infection, believing that his contribution had been bleached from the record.



For the full review, see:

JENNIFER SENIOR . "Books of The Times; Wash Up, Doc: How Hospitals Became Clean." The New York Times (Thursday, November 30, 2017): C5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 29, 2017, and has the title "Books of The Times; The Story of How Surgeons Cleaned Up Their Act.")


The book under review, is:

Fitzharris, Lindsey. The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.






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