"The Agnew Clinic", by Thomas Eakins , ca. 1889 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Spend Halloween evening with medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris as she sheds light on the brutal and bloody world of Victorian surgery—a place definitely not for the squeamish.
She discusses how surgeons, working before anesthesia, were lauded for their speed and brute strength. They rarely washed their hands or their instruments, and carried with them a cadaverous smell of rotting flesh, which those in the profession cheerfully referred to as “good old hospital stink.”
Victorian operating theaters were known as “gateways of death,” since half of those who underwent surgery didn't survive the experience. This was an era when a broken leg could lead to amputation, when surgeons often lacked university degrees, and were still known to ransack cemeteries to find cadavers.
While the discovery of anesthesia in the 1840s somewhat lessened the misery for patients, ironically it led to more deaths, as surgeons took greater risks. In squalid, overcrowded hospitals, doctors remained baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high.
Fitzharris also explores the critical turning point in the history of medicine. When surgery couldn't have been more dangerous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: Joseph Lister, a young, visionary Quaker surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world. By making the audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection—and could be treated with antiseptics— and working ceaselessly to enlighten the medical world, Lister brought centuries of savagery, sawing, and gangrene to an end.
Fitzharris, who holds a doctorate in the history of science and medicine from Oxford University, is the creator of the popular website The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice and the writer and presenter of the YouTube series Under the Knife.
Her book, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is available for signing after the program.
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)