BLOOMINGTON — From a self-described “strange child” who went from cemetery to cemetery with her grandmother “hunting ghosts,” Illinois Wesleyan University graduate Lindsey Fitzharris says she “grew up to be an even stranger adult.”
But that “stranger adult” has a YouTube series dedicated to the horrors of pre-anesthetic surgery, a blog called The Chirugeon's Apprentice, using an archaic word for “surgeon,” and a book called, appropriately, “The Butchering Art.”
And now, thanks to that book and her skill in writing it, she has a prestigious PEN America Award, the E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing, that includes a $10,000 prize.
“The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine” details the efforts of Victorian-era surgeon Joseph Lister to transform medical practice by developing procedures to fight the spread of germs that were leading to countless deaths.
“I like to say that 'The Butchering Art' is a love story between science and medicine,” Fitzharris said in a recent email interview.
“Joseph Lister was a visionary surgeon who persevered with his work despite a prevailing climate of skepticism and denial,” she said. “In this way, his story is more relevant today than it has ever been.”
Her book was among five finalists for the PEN America science writing award. In awarding the prize, the judges said, “Fitzharris is a brilliant narrator of visceral operating room scenes, but her account of the medical community's prolonged and contentious resistance to Lister is just as compelling.”
“Visceral” is a nice way of saying grisly, and her book, blog and YouTube series, “Under the Knife,” are not for the squeamish.
“Yes, it can get gory. But then again, so can everyday life in the 21st century,” said Fitzharris, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Mount Prospect but now lives in England.
“I don't believe I would be doing the stories of the past justice if I wasn't painting a vivid picture about just how awful it would have been to live in a pre-anesthetic and pre-antiseptic era.”
Although “The Butchering Art” is her first book, her writing talents were recognized early.
IWU history professor Michael Young said Fitzharris received a 100.2 average in one of the courses she took from him, getting perfect scores on several papers.
“That's rare for me because I'm a pretty hard grader,” he said.
“I knew she had talent. I knew if she kept plugging away it would lead to success,” said Young.
Fitzharris said, “Everyone warned me that he was the most difficult history professor on campus and that I would regret it (taking his course as a freshman). But it was the best decision I ever made.”
Fitzharris said Young introduced her “to the history of science and ideas” and has been “by far, the biggest influence on my career.”
As an IWU junior, she spent a year studying at the University of Oxford in England. After graduating from IWU, she returned to Oxford for a doctoral degree in the history of science, medicine and technology.
But despite the advanced degrees, Fitzharris said she considers herself “first and foremost a storyteller.”
“She could well have become another dull professor, but she was too creative to be confined to academia,” said Young. “She is reaching a lot wider audience than an academic historian usually would reach.”
And that audience is likely to continue to grow.
“My next book will be on the birth of plastic surgery told through the incredible story of Harold Gillies, the pioneering and eccentric surgeon who first united art and medicine to address the horrific injuries that resulted from World War I,” said Fitzharris.