Death’s doll and sleeping beauty, books bound in human flesh and the history of the tooth worm: These are just some of the topics described and chronicled by Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris in her popular website entitled “The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice“.
Dr. Fitzharris will be the first to describe herself as “strange” growing up in Chicago. “What child can be so interested in death and the past that she would often drag her grandmother to old cemeteries?” However her research into the strange world of medieval medicine is what interests her most.
Her special interest in history and a passion for academia would eventually lead her to pursue a career on this subject. She would receive her PhD from the University of Oxford in History of Science, Medicine & Technology in 2009. Her website , The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice was started shortly thereafter in 2010.
As strange as her fascination may have been, I would describe Dr. Fitzharris as a passionate writer and storyteller fascinated by medical science, the history and the Chirurgeon; the archaic forefather to the modern surgeon.
Much of her fascination starts with the history of the Chirurgeon (pronounced like “surgeon“). On her website welcome page, she describes the history of the modern surgeon and its ancestor as “closely related to barbers and other craftsmen who learned their trade through apprenticeships. After the Restoration, however, Chirurgeons broke from their medieval role and began participating in important medical debates. Their advocacy of ‘practical’ medicine and experimentation distinguished them from their university-educated counterparts, the physicians, and helped elevate their role in the medical marketplace.“
More than that however, her writings explore fascinating topics ranging from historical surgical instruments, disfiguring diseases and birth defects to archaic aspects of anesthesia and surgery predating the era of ‘modern medicine’.
This website is dedicated to a study of early modern chirurgeons, and all the blood and gore that comes with it. ~ Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, PhD.
Many of her written entries are categorized generally as “casebooks”. There are even entries posted “From the dissection room” describing varied subjects of medical pathology/disease and even specimens preserved in old bottles of formalin.
Much of her research is quite specific and in-depth. Some of these casebooks stand out, such as the case of “Mermaid Syndrome” or Sirenomelia, a brief history of Harlequin Ichthyosis, the history of dentures entitled “Dead Men’s Teeth” that include early toothbrushes and a look at George Washington’s false teeth! You’ll come to learn that Washington never had ‘wooden’ teeth’.
Her stories are interlaced with excellent writing, storytelling and just plain, hard-sought research. There is so much more!
She was awarded “Best Individual Blog” for 2011. She has been published in and number of journals, other websites and magazines such as the British Medical Journal Lancet , New Scientist , Wellcome History, Wonders & Marvels, and even appearing on TV documentaries. She also co-authors the website Grave Matters.
Dr. Fitzharris was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule for this interview.
“Her writings explore
fascinating topics ranging
from historical surgical instruments,
disfiguring diseases and birth defects
to archaic aspects of aneasthesia and surgery
predating the era of modern medicine.”
Dr. Fitzharris, tell us a little something about your typical day and life in London.
It will probably come as a terrible disappointment to some when I say that a typical day in my life can be pretty dull. I wake up, pour myself a huge cup of tea, and begin writing. I think as a writer, the key to success is to have sufficient time alone with oneself, to think and create. Even on days when I feel uninspired (which far outnumber the days I do feel inspired), it’s important to keep pushing.
Can you tell us how your original website, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, came to be named? What motivated you to start publicizing your work?
After all the philosophizing and theorizing I had done in my PhD, I had become disenchanted with history. Then, I met my friend, Alex Anstey, who at the time was working as a movie editor on The Chronicles of Narnia. He was so fascinated with my research that it got me thinking: Maybe my work had broader appeal? Driven partly by this and partly by the desire to fall in love with history again, I started The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice.
The name of the website makes use of the antiquated spelling for surgeon (pronounced the same way), and alludes to the fact that surgeons were once trained through apprenticeships, like any other craftsman in earlier periods of history. I call myself “The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice” because I’m a student of early surgery, just in a different sense.
“Anthropodermic bibliopegy refers
to the practice of binding
books with human skin
This was often done with the skins
of executed criminals
in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries;
although skins were obtained from
other people as well,
most notably the anonymous
dead who were dissected. ”
~Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris~
As a doctor, I find your articles quite fascinating. Who do you feel is your primary audience when writing?
I never set out to target a specific type of audience. I started the website for myself, and have been lucky that so many people from so many walks of life have responded positively to the material I’ve posted. My readers are as diverse as the subjects I cover, ranging from teenagers interested in the macabre to professional medical practitioners, like yourself. It’s wonderful that my work can interest so many different kinds of people, and get them interested in medical history.
You have two websites listed on your author/presenter site. One is Grave Matters, which you co-write with Chris Skaife, Yeoman Warder and Ravenmaster at the Tower of London; and the other is The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. You are also filming a YouTube series called Under The Knife.
First of all, where do you find all the time to produce such quality work? Where do you see these projects headed?
It’s true, I am spread a bit thin at the moment! But I love engaging with people about the past in new and creative ways, and each project is radically different from the other. I have to be honest, I don’t really embark on any project with specific goals or expectations. Everything I do, I do for the pure love of doing it. If any of these projects turns into something bigger, then that’s just a bonus.
Your website also highlights many early surgical procedures, instruments and the like. What are some of the most important changes that you have witnessed in your research that has impacted modern medicine today as we see it?
Probably the most important advancement in surgery was the discovery of anesthetics and antiseptics. Until then, surgeons were limited in what types of surgery they could perform, and even those procedures which they could carry out were still incredibly dangerous as patients often died of shock and post-operative infection.
Will your writings and articles one day be turned into a book?
Well, I probably should have written a book ages ago. Unfortunately, my curiosity often gets the better of me, and I find myself going off on historical tangents. I guess that’s why The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice is so varied. I’ve written on everything from Victorian anti-masturbation devices to books bound in human skin and medieval urine wheels. The site was intended to focus on pre-anaesthetic surgery, but really it’s a compilation of stories that have captured my imagination.
“I would call myself
first and foremost a storyteller.
I’m so often moved by the stories
I come across in my research—
stories about the people who died,
about the loved ones they left behind,
and about the anatomists
who dissected their bodies
for the sake of medical science.
It’s what first attracted me
to history as a subject.”
~Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris~
As for a book: I do want to write one and am currently working on a proposal. It won’t be a mere compilation of blog entries though. It will be a richer, more detailed history of surgery, and all the blood & guts that comes with it.
Can you explain to our readers how you research a typical article?
I’m an avid reader, and a lot of my posts stem from ideas I have when reading books. I use both secondary and primary sources, along with images from museums, to help bring the story together. An article can take me anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to write, depending on how familiar I am with the subject prior to writing about it.
What projects are in your immediate future?
I’ve just released the first episode of my new YouTube series, Under The Knife, directed by Alex Anstey & illustrated by Adrian Teal. It’s all about the clockwork saw—an amputation device designed in the 19th century—which was a massive fail in our medical past. It reminds me of the necessity of failure in science and medicine… and I suppose in life, as well. I’m really excited about Under The Knife. We have a lot of fun things planned for the series, so please subscribe for video updates!
What fascinates you most about death?
It’s not death that fascinates me. It’s our eternal struggle to fight death, even in the face of impossible odds. I write a lot about death because it’s a part of our medical past. You can’t talk about medical advancements without talking about the people who died in the process.
You recently began a financial drive through Patreon to help supplement your work. Can you tell our readers the purpose and goals of this service?
Over the years, people have asked how they can support my work. Patreon allows a person to pledge a fixed amount of money (e.g. $2) per article in exchange for various perks: anything from access to private videos, articles and photos to personalized medical history postcards. It’s a great concept and helps to defray the ongoing costs of running a website!
Finally, what is your most favorite article from any of your working websites?
Hmm… That’s a difficult question. Each and every topic I write on fascinates me otherwise it wouldn’t end up on my website. The article which was most popular with readers was a piece I wrote about anthropodermic bibliopegy—the process of binding books with human skin. But if I had to pick for myself, I’d say the article on “Dead Men’s Teeth,” all about the history of early dentistry.
Dr. Fitzharris has just finished producing the first in a video series called “Under the Knife”. Get a preview of the first episode here.
Thank you Dr. Fitzharris for this insightful interview. I can honestly speak for everyone when I say, “We can’t wait to read or see your next work!”
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Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, PhD is a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, holds a Doctorate in History of Science, Medicine and Technology – University of Oxford. She is author and creator of the popular history website, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, and presenter of Under the Knife. She has appeared on Guts: The Strange and Mysterious World of the Human Stomach with Michael Mosley for BBC4; and Tony Robinson’s Gods & Monsters – Channel 4 (UK) and National Geographical Channel. She is also a Freelance writer for such publications as the New Scientist, The Guardian and The Lancet. She is a member of The Order of the Good Death and functions as a historical media consultant and public speaker.