The most common biographical detail known about Joseph Lister, a majority of the general
public will tell you, is that he is the inventor of a popular mouthwash that promises
to “kill germs that cause bad breath.”
But they would be wrong.
Though he inspired St. Louis-based doctor Joseph Lawrence to develop Listerine in
1879, the namesake of the product had nothing to do with its conception beyond providing
the light-bulb moment for Lawrence.
Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris ’04 has told Listerine’s origin story more times than she can
count. The preeminent Lister scholar and author of the critically acclaimed biography The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian
Medicine,Fitzharris addressed the misconception in her acceptance speech after winning the
PEN America/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing for The Butchering Art in February.
“Most people only know Lister’s name because of the product Listerine, which incidentally
he didn’t create. It was named for him, but not by him,” Fitzharris explained to the
audience at NYU’s Skirball Center. “And it wasn’t even used as a mouthwash in the
19th century. It was more commonly used as a treatment for gonorrhea.”
The surprising detail punctuating Fitzharris’ explanation, which drew a chorus of
laughter from the audience, was characteristic of her style. Whether the audience
is readers of her book or her highly popular blog The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, viewers of her YouTube series Under the Knife, or her thousands of followers on social media, Fitzharris delivers historical accounts
in graphic-but-not-too-graphic detail, driven by suspense and often lightened by humor.
“You hear the phrase ‘It’s a real page turner,’ and her book is certainly that. She
has a gripping narrative style,” said Robert W. Harrington Professor of History Dr.
Michael B. Young, who taught Fitzharris during her time as a student at Illinois Wesleyan
and has stayed in touch with his former pupil since her graduation in 2004. “She creates
suspense, and you keep reading to find out what is going to happen next.”
While she’s quickly earning status as a respected historian, Fitzharris considers
herself first and foremost a storyteller. It’s a career that her mentor Young is not
surprised she has thrived in, when he considers the most prominent talent she exhibited
as a student.
“What do I remember about her the best? She was one hell of a talker. A terrific talker.
She could talk your ear off,” Young said, smiling widely. “And she’s made a career
out of it. She’s turned that talent into a profession.”
How does one develop an interest in medical history that some might politely describe
as unique, but others might classify as morbid?
Time spent with her grandmother as a child served as the beginning. Whether she was
dragging her grandmother to the cemetery to “hunt ghosts” or poking around the dusty
relics cluttering her grandmother’s attic, Fitzharris developed an interest in people
and things from the past.
“Some people think I was obsessed with death, but actually I was fascinated by the
people who lived and died in the past,” she said. “I think it’s safe to say that I
was on the path to becoming a historian from an early age.”
That interest in history persisted throughout her schooling, and a quest for knowledge
translated to high marks in the classroom for the young Fitzharris. The suburban Chicago
native (she grew up in the northwest village of Mount Prospect) had been accepted
to the University of
Illinois and was fully prepared to make the trip downstate to continue her education
But a campus visit to Illinois Wesleyan late in her senior year of high school changed
things. “I instantly fell in love with the campus and the small classrooms,” Fitzharris
remembers. “I knew IWU was the right place for me.”
Fitzharris was intent on earning a degree in political science in preparation for
law school – she graduated from IWU just one credit short of a political science major
– but her academic interests changed, after inspiration came in the form of a study
abroad experience and an inspirational professor.
Fitzharris spent her junior year studying at Oxford University in England as part
of the Institute for Study Abroad-Butler program. Immersion in the academic culture
at the oldest English-speaking university in the world aroused within Fitzharris that
same interest in the past she harbored as a child.
And so did that professor.
As a first-year student at IWU, Fitzharris enrolled in Young’s course on the Enlightenment,
despite repeated warnings from her peers that it would be difficult and that Young
was one of the toughest professors on campus.
“But it was the best decision I ever made,” Fitzharris said. “Dr. Young introduced
me to the history of science and ideas, and mentored me through my undergrad degree
Fitzharris graduated at the top of her class with a history major and political science
minor. Her honors thesis, Magic, Mysticism and Modern Medicine: The Influence of Alchemy on Seventeenth-Century
England, served as what would now be called a Signature Experience, a comprehensive project
representative of one’s entire academic experience. Fitzharris’ capstone project at
IWU showcased her proficiency in research. Her thesis cited 14 primary and 25 secondary
sources, and included 79 footnotes.
“What I remember most about that was what little work it required on my part,” Young
stated. “It’s unusual to have an undergraduate student who goes to the sources and
finds questions in them. That’s one of the hardest things to teach a history student
as an undergraduate, to notice what the good questions are, to think of what the interesting
angles are to take, and she found the interesting questions and the interesting angles.
“And when she’d come in to talk to me about her research, I just sat back and listened.”
Though he often needed only to lend an ear to the “terrific talker” Fitzharris, Young’s
guidance ultimately had a profound impact.
“By far, the biggest influence on my career was and is Dr. Michael B. Young,” Fitzharris
Fitzharris returned to Oxford in 2004 after earning an undergraduate degree at Illinois
Wesleyan. She earned master’s and doctoral degrees from one of the world’s most prestigious
institutions of higher learning. She received funding from the Wellcome Trust to conduct
But during her postdoc at University College London, Fitzharris began to feel burned
“I wanted to fall back in love with history,” she said. “I wanted to get back to the
stuff that really excited me as a child.”
Fitzharris’ blog The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice was born from that desire to fall in love again. An outlet to flex her creative muscles
and share her interests as a hobby, the blog’s readership soon surpassed what she
“Before I knew it, I was dedicating most of my time to public engagement,” Fitzharris
said. “I realized then that an academic career was not for me.”
Other mediums have been utilized to reach wider audiences more recently. Her YouTube
series Under the Knife has over 27,000 subscribers, and its episodes have been viewed more than a half-million
Equal parts history and humor, Fitzharris tells the stories behind primitive medical
practices and products from bygone eras: dentures made from the teeth of executed
criminals, the unusual embalming and burial of Abraham Lincoln, and – in the most-viewed
episode to date – Victorian anti-masturbation devices.
Fitzharris was also an early adopter of social media, where she reaches a global audience
at the speed of a few keystrokes. Her website (www.drlindseyfitzharris.com) states
she is a “purveyor of gruesome artefacts” on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Her social media accounts are peppered with bizarre snapshots of medical history,
updates on upcoming projects and cross promotion between her social media channels.
The versatile Fitzharris has additionally lent her talents to a number of wide-ranging
publications (The Guardian, The Lancet, New Scientist, Penthouse, Huffington Post and Medium) and television networks (PBS, Channel 4, BBC and National Geographic).
“She’s popular and well-liked and scholarly, all at the same time,” Young said. “There
are several celebrity historians in our profession – people who, whether they are
academics or not, are read by more than just their colleagues. Sometimes they turn
to not just writing popular books, but television or other media to draw attention
to their work.
“And I think Lindsey is well on her way to becoming one of those celebrity historians.”
“Have there been failures?” Fitzharris asks, repeating a question. “Absolutely!”
For every success, every positive review, every like on social media, there are often
a proportionate number of failures. The highs and lows associated with success and
failure impact individuals in every profession, even historians. And problems in one’s
personal life can easily compound professional shortcomings.
Before her breakthrough moment came in the publishing of The Butchering Art, Fitzharris found herself at a low point.
“Several years ago, my ex-husband abruptly ended our 10-year relationship and disappeared,”
Fitzharris recalled. “As a result, I suddenly found myself facing deportation from
a country I had called home for many years. My passport was confiscated, and I wasn’t
allowed to work while my immigration situation was being decided.”
Fitzharris had called England home ever since she returned to pursue her master’s
at Oxford. The chances of her remaining in her adopted country seemed bleak and dependent
on contentious legal proceedings.
“My ex-husband’s lawyers painted a picture of me as a failed writer, which was easy
to believe since I had no money, no job prospects, and no right to remain in my home,”
Fitzharris said. “During those eight excruciating months, I worked on a proposal.”
Her proposal was a pitch to a publisher. A longtime admirer of the pioneering surgeon
Joseph Lister, Fitzharris saw Lister as the hero in a story of a groundbreaking medical
discovery that changed the way we live. Lister’s ideas were considered radical, and
he spent much of his life persuading people that it was germs that caused so many
deaths following surgery.
The climate of skepticism and doubt he faced was overwhelming. But the visionary Lister
persevered. He lived just long enough to see the concept of antiseptic surgery accepted
by the medical community.
“My intention when I set out to write The Butchering Art was to ensure that Lister’s name would become just as familiar to people as those
of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Marie
Curie,” Fitzharris said. “Lister revolutionized surgery and made safe procedures that
had been perilous for centuries.
“I wanted to honor his legacy by writing this book.”
Building a cult following can gain one a certain level of notoriety – fame even. But
it seldom pays the bills.
The Butchering Art has paid some of those bills. And it’s ushered Fitzharris into the mainstream.
The book sold out on Amazon’s U.K. website within 24 hours of its initial release
and has sold approximately 70,000 copies in the U.S. and U.K. in its first six months.
That number is expected to jump when The Butchering Art is released in paperback on Oct. 2, 2018, and Fitzharris’ publisher is expecting
a bigger sales boost than usual for a nonfiction paperback. By the end of 2018, the
book will have been released in Czech, German, Italian, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese,
Spanish and Russian language editions.
Fitzharris’ story of a protagonist who overcomes odds and determinedly seeks to make
the world a better place has resonated with the general public – even those who thought
Lister was just a guy who invented mouthwash.
Fitzharris’ ode to Lister has been hailed by critics. The Butchering Art was nominated for and won the PEN America/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing
earlier this year, accompanied by a $10,000 award (IWU was well-represented at the
awards ceremony, as fellow alum Dave Kindred ’63 earned the PEN America/ESPN Lifetime
Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing). Fitzharris’ debut book was also shortlisted
for the Wellcome Book Prize and the Wolfson History Prize, recognizing outstanding
works in the fields of medicine and history, respectively.
The Butchering Art has gained traction in general circles as well, outside the niche interests of science,
medicine and history. Fitzharris dutifully promoted her work through her blog, web
series and social media channels. She supported the book’s October 2017 release with
U.S. and U.K. book tours, during an appropriately macabre time of year; her promotional
stop in Washington, D.C., near the end of her stateside tour, took place on Halloween.
Maintaining wide appeal, however, requires a delicate touch when the main action in
your story is comprised of dissections, amputations, and even an instance of medical
students mock dueling with severed arms and legs as their weapons of choice.
“By its nature, medical history can be gruesome. I don’t feel that I’m doing the doctors
and patients justice if I hold back from describing what it was really like in the
past,” Fitzharris said. “At the same time, I don’t want to be insensitive, and it’s
always important to remember that these were real people.”
Fitzharris also strikes a balance between academic and popular history writing. Her
biography of Lister is scholarly in its examination of a historically relevant figure,
yet it maintains a wide appeal because of Lister’s underappreciated genius and his
relatable struggle for acceptance.
“Some academics don’t see a value in what I do, but the past doesn’t belong to scholars
alone. It belongs to everyone,” Fitzharris said. “My hope is that I can bridge the
gap between academia and popular history, and open up new and interesting subjects
to a curious public. In order to do this, I have to find imaginative ways to engage
non-specialists with medical history.”
A Butchering Art has served as a breakthrough for Fitzharris. She says it’s been “rewarding, but also
very exhausting,” as she’s spent much of the past year traveling to promote her work.
Her professional and financial situations have improved as a result of the success
but, ever the historian, Fitzharris is most proud of her work’s achievement in “shining
a light on Lister’s legacy.”
Fitzharris’ personal life is better than ever, too. She never was deported and has
continued to make her home in the English countryside. She recently married illustrator
and cartoonist Adrian Teal in a ceremony at the Tower of London, a historically significant
English landmark befitting the wedding of a historian. “It was magical,” Fitzharris
And she and Teal are partners, both domestically and professionally. Before they were
a couple, they collaborated on several projects, most notably The Hung & Drawn Quarterly, an illustrated comic strip drawn by Teal featuring gruesome stories told by Fitzharris
and Chris Skaife (who possesses the very unique real-life title of The Ravenmaster
at the Tower of London).
Teal also played a critical role in The Butchering Art, and Fitzharris expects him to continue contributing in much of her work moving forward.
“Before anything gets sent to my publisher, he is always the first to read and comment
on my manuscript, and he’s a fantastic editor,” she said. “On a personal note, it’s
been wonderful being with someone who understands the pressures I face as a freelancer,
since Adrian himself has been a freelance cartoonist for 21 years.
“He’s incredibly talented, both as an artist and writer, and I hope we get to collaborate
on more commercial projects in the future.”
The Butchering Art has been on shelves for almost a year and Fitzharris is still on the publicity circuit.
Another wave will come in October when it’s released in paperback form.
More and more frequently, though, she’s asked the burning question: What’s next?
She’s not entirely sure, but there are a few projects in the works. She recently traveled
to Los Angeles to meet with interested parties to explore the possibility of adapting
The Butchering Art into a feature film. “Hollywood is unpredictable, but I would be delighted to see
this story come to life on the big screen,” Fitzharris said.
She also recently announced the subject of her next book, which pays homage to another
physician, like Lister, whose pioneering work addressed a widespread medical problem.
Harold Gillies, who united art and medicine to treat soldiers who had suffered horrific
injuries in World War I, is known as the father of modern plastic surgery. Charged
with treating soldiers injured during a time when technological advances in weaponry
by far outpaced military tactics and medical capability, Gillies performed procedures
that not only restored function, but also helped individuals reclaim their identities.
Gillies’ work treating wounds from machine gun and mortar fire, and skin-piercing
shrapnel, required first-of-their- kind surgeries in a field that has grown exponentially
since its inception. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons estimates nearly 1.8
million cosmetic surgical procedures were performed last year domestically.
“Gillies was presented with the seemingly impossible task of reconstructing entire
faces with no textbooks to guide him and no mentors to consult for advice,” Fitzharris
said. “Working closely with a team of artists, Gillies did not just strive to restore
function to his patients, many of whom could not breathe, swallow, or eat efficiently
because of the damage to their faces. He was determined to give them back their identities
as well. His life-saving techniques are a testament to the true meaning and power
of a field of medicine many view as superficial, or even frivolous.
“I’ve long been inspired by Gillies’ work, and I hope my readers will find this story
just as fascinating as I do.”
Even with a new book and a potential screen adaptation of her debut work being considered,
new ideas continue to percolate within Fitzharris. As much as anyone else, Michael
Young is curious what will come next from his former student.
The IWU professor, who will soon begin his 49th year of teaching, wishes he kept better
tabs on his former students. He blames himself for not being as accessible as he could
be; his aversion to Facebook has eliminated perhaps the easiest way for former students
to reach out. He’ll occasionally receive news from former students to prompt moments
of nostalgia, but it doesn’t happen as often as he’d like.
“It’s gratifying to know how some of our students turned out, but I wish I knew more,”
Young remembers one particular student who had the very specific career aspiration
of working for one of the premier auction houses.
“I’ve thought about her a lot lately,” Young says. “Did she succeed? Is she at Sotheby’s?
Is she at Christie’s? Did she make it to Leslie Hindman up in Chicago?”
Young isn’t sure he’ll ever know. He is sure, however, that he’ll keep tabs on his
former student Lindsey Fitzharris … and that it won’t be too difficult to do so.
“I’ll certainly be following her career, but I don’t think it’ll be much of a mystery.
I think she’ll pop up without me having to do much searching,” Young said, smiling
again. “I expect great things from her, and I hope this is just the beginning of a