The best books exploring the wonders of Victorian medicine

Who am I?

I have always been interested in the history of medicine, particularly the ways in which historical methods are portrayed to be inferior to modern medicine. As a historian, I am alternately amused and horrified at the way we go overboard in discarding historical methods of healthcare, ridding ourselves of perfectly useful techniques, drugs, and therapies. The more I learn about older curative methods, the more I’ve become sensitive to the knowledge and technologies that have been lost. At the same time, I am fascinated by new technologies, and find anesthesia particularly captivating as a technique that improved survival and recovery from what had previously been deadly conditions.


I wrote...

Book cover of Murder at Old St. Thomas's

What is my book about?

In 1862 London, the body of a famous surgeon is found in an old operating theatre. The bookish Inspector Slaughter must discover the killer with help from Nightingale nurses, surgeon's dressers, devious apothecaries, and even stage actors in a world where anesthesia is new, working-class audiences enjoy Shakespeare, and women reformers solve society's problems.

The books I picked & why

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The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

By Lindsey Fitzharris,

Book cover of The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

Why this book?

While purporting to be a book about the horrors of Victorian surgery, The Butchering Art is actually a fascinating exploration into the innovation of hygienic practices and antisepsis as pioneered by Joseph Lister. Among his other achievements, Lister invented carbolic spray, which maintained disinfection over the open cavity of the patient during surgery. With germ theory quite new, many in the medical profession questioned the need for hand washing and special clothing to prevent post-operative infection, which truly did make Victorian surgery frightening.

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine

By Lindsey Fitzharris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Butchering Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner, 2018 PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing
Short-listed for the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize
A Top 10 Science Book of Fall 2017, Publishers Weekly
A Best History Book of 2017, The Guardian

"Warning: She spares no detail!" —Erik Larson, bestselling author of Dead Wake

In The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery and shows how it was transformed by advances made in germ theory and antiseptics between 1860 and 1875. She conjures up early operating theaters—no place for the squeamish—and surgeons, who, working before anesthesia, were lauded for their speed and…


Operations Without Pain: The Practice and Science of Anaesthesia in Victorian Britain

By Stephanie J. Snow,

Book cover of Operations Without Pain: The Practice and Science of Anaesthesia in Victorian Britain

Why this book?

The development of anesthesia was met with confusion, dismissal, and even derision. While today we are accustomed to the idea of the patient being asleep, at the time it was seen as similar to operating on a dead body. Without the indications of pain or relief, how was the surgeon to feel what he was doing? And in its earliest days, some forms of anesthesia could be dangerous, the patient dying if the dosage wasn’t correct or they had an adverse reaction. But for the patient, and for surgeons who needed more time for an operation, anesthesia was an unequivocal blessing that took away pain and made life-saving procedures possible.

Operations Without Pain: The Practice and Science of Anaesthesia in Victorian Britain

By Stephanie J. Snow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Operations Without Pain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The introduction of anaesthesia to Victorian Britain marked a defining moment between modern medicine and earlier practices. This book uses new information from John Snow's casebooks and London hospital archives to revise many of the existing historical assumptions about the early history of surgical anaesthesia. By examining complex patterns of innovation, reversals, debate and geographical difference, Stephanie Snow shows how anaesthesia became established as a routine part of British medicine.


Victorian Pharmacy: Rediscovering Home Remedies and Recipes

By Jane Eastoe,

Book cover of Victorian Pharmacy: Rediscovering Home Remedies and Recipes

Why this book?

A clever introduction to Victorian pharmaceuticals and remedies, this is a companion book for the popular BBC television series. It provides an explanation of the natural substances used for healing, and how they were made into marketable and regulated medicines for sale at the apothecary shop. The emphasis is on safety, because the authors don’t want you trying arsenic and mercury-based compounds at home, and indeed they leave out a great many useful Victorian remedies, particularly those containing opium! But the knowledge about how apothecary shops worked, and what the pharmacist did to turn plants and other substances into medicine, is invaluable.

Victorian Pharmacy: Rediscovering Home Remedies and Recipes

By Jane Eastoe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Victorian Pharmacy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ties in to a fantastic new four-part BBC series from the makers of the hit Victorian Farm Shows how many products on sale in our high street chemists today can trace their origins back to nineteenth century formulations Full of fascinating facts, remedies and recipes to try at home Victorian Farm sold over 40,000 copies (Nielsen Bookscan figures)

This is the story of consumer medicine - how high street healthcare emerged in just 50 years and how we still rely on hundreds of formulations and products that can trace their origins back to the nineteenth century.

Sun cream, treatments for…


Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not

By Florence Nightingale,

Book cover of Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not

Why this book?

Although known for being the “Lady with the Lamp” during the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale was also a statistician and tireless crusader for more hygienic conditions in hospitals both temporary and permanent. This book explains how to nurse a loved one or client at home, and includes advice we should follow today, particularly about ventilation in the sickroom. When she herself became ill later in life, she became a sofa-bound activist, influencing policies via correspondence. Nightingale founded a nursing school at St. Thomas’s Hospital, and the nurse probationers featured in my book attended her school. Mrs. Sarah Wardroper, a character in the novel, was Nightingale’s lieutenant in real life.

Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not

By Florence Nightingale,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Notes on Nursing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Written by the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, Notes of Nursing was the first book of its kind. It was originally published when the simple rules of health were only beginning to be known. Its topics were of vital importance for the well-being and recovery of patients, when hospitals were riddled with infection.

In this edition, Mark Stinson adds his commentary, writing that this book "portrays the background for understanding the historical evolution from Nightingale’s experiences and sine qa non of her day to today’s utilization of evidence-based medicine in healthcare. The Nightingale legacy is also a call to…


Flushed With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper

By Wallace Reyburn,

Book cover of Flushed With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper

Why this book?

Sanitation was a huge influence on health and medical conditions in Victorian London, and the toilet is a perfect example of how an invention can both solve a problem and cause more. Early toilets were more sanitary, but they flushed waste directly into the Thames, along with a lot of water, which ended up requiring a new sewer system. Flushed with Pride tells the story of the popularizer, if not the inventor, of the modern toilet: Thomas Crapper. The book, originally published in 1969, is a fun biography of the man who became the Royal Plumber and an expert marketer of bathroom fixtures.

Flushed With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper

By Wallace Reyburn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Flushed With Pride as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The name of Thomas Crapper, the inventor 100 years ago of the flushing lavatory, is commemorated on toilet cisterns throughout Britain. "Flushed With Pride" reveals the story of his remarkable life and his struggle to reform the nation's water closets.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in medicine, nursing, and World War 2?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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