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Five Minutes With… Dr Lindsey Fitzharris

Dr Lindsey Fitzharris is a medical historian with a PhD from Oxford University. She is the author and creator of the popular website, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, which is all about the horrors of pre-anaesthetic surgery. Lindsey has written for The Guardian, The Lancet, New Scientist, The Huffington Post & Medium; and has appeared on television for  Channel 4, BBC4 and National Geographic. 

Lindsey FitzharrisWhat is an historian?

A person who doesn’t make a lot of money. 

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

As a little girl growing up in my grandmother’s house, I remember rifling through closets stuffed with oddities from bygone years: a hand-beaded purse from the 1920s with a lady’s calling card tucked inside; faded tintypes of solemn relatives placed in front of Victorian backdrops; a suitcase with my grandfather’s marine uniform worn on Okinawa in 1945, along with pieces of shrapnel from the battle. 

Individually, these ‘things’ meant very little. Collectively, they represented my family’s past—one which was both tangible and enigmatic to a little girl whose curiosity in history went far beyond genealogy. I suppose it was in that moment I fell in love with the past, though I don’t remember making a conscious decision to pursue history as a career till much later in life.  

What is the one history book you simply couldn’t do without?

Death, Dissection & the Destitute by Ruth Richardson. It’s my bible.

Do you have a favourite website for historical research (or procrastination)? Why?

The Quack Doctor by Caroline Rance. It’s a collection of 19th-century medical advertisements. I could spend hours on there (and I often do!) 

What is your favourite historical place?

To those who know me, this answer will not come as a surprise. My favourite historical place (indeed my favourite place in the whole wide world) is the Tower of London. I’ve been 20 times, and each time I visit, I learn something new.

Incidentally, one of my good friends is Chris Skaife—Yeoman Warder and Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. He and I are going to be launching a series on my blog next year called ‘Notes from the Tower,’ where we’ll dispel myths about that famous fortress. Keep an eye out for it! 

You have a time machine for 24 hours, where do you go?

I could say I’d like to attend a lecture given by the famous 18th-century anatomist, John Hunter, but that’s a bit predictable.  Besides, Hunter was a notoriously bad public speaker, and I’ve endured enough of those in my lifetime!  

Instead, I’d rather get my hands dirty helping the bodysnatchers dig up corpses for Hunter. There is so little known about the resurrectionists.  Yet, they are an important and integral part of the history of medicine. I think spending a night with a gang of ‘sack-em-up’ men would be terribly entertaining, as well as enlightening!

You have a new research project and a deadline. What is your normal working pattern?

I’m probably not the best person to ask. I 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 should have been mere footnotes!  

Your period of expertise no longer exists. Which historical period would you research instead?

Although I’m an early modernist by training, I dabble in all periods. I’m particularly partial to the early 19th century, when bodysnatching was in full swing.

Why is history important today?

Our understanding of the present is filtered through our knowledge of the past. History gives value to the here and now.

Finally, what is your best historical fact?

Most people are unaware that barber-surgeons (as they were often called) bled patients for medicinal purposes in earlier centuries. The tradition of the striped barber’s pole harks back to that era, when it served as an advertisement for their proficiency as bloodletters. The pole represents the rod that the patient gripped to make their veins bulge and the brass ball at the top symbolizes the basin used to collect the blood. The red and white stripes represent the bloodied bandages. Once washed and hung to dry on the rod outside the shop, they would twist in the wind, forming the familiar spiral pattern adorning the barber poles of today.

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