• Empire of the Scalpel

  • The History of Surgery
  • By: Ira Rutkow MD
  • Narrated by: Gibson Frazier
  • Length: 15 hrs and 22 mins
  • 4.6 out of 5 stars (54 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

From an eminent surgeon and historian comes the “by turns fascinating and ghastly” (The New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice) story of surgery’s development—from the Stone Age to the present day—blending meticulous medical research with vivid storytelling.

There are not many life events that can be as simultaneously frightening and hopeful as a surgical operation. In America, tens-of-millions of major surgical procedures are performed annually, yet few of us consider the magnitude of these figures because we have such inherent confidence in surgeons. And, despite passionate debates about health care and the media’s endless fascination with surgery, most of us have no idea how the first surgeons came to be because the story of surgery has never been fully told. Now, Empire of the Scalpel elegantly reveals surgery’s fascinating evolution from its early roots in ancient Egypt to its refinement in Europe and rise to scientific dominance in the United States.

From the 16th-century saga of Andreas Vesalius and his crusade to accurately describe human anatomy while appeasing the conservative clergy who clamored for his burning at the stake, to the hard-to-believe story of late-19th century surgeons’ apathy to Joseph Lister’s innovation of antisepsis and how this indifference led to thousands of unnecessary surgical deaths, Empire of the Scalpel is both a global history and a uniquely American tale. You’ll discover how in the 20th century the US achieved surgical leadership, heralded by Harvard’s Joseph Murray and his Nobel Prize–winning, seemingly impossible feat of transplanting a kidney, which ushered in a new era of transplants that continues to make procedures once thought insurmountable into achievable successes.

Today, the list of possible operations is almost infinite—from knee and hip replacement to heart bypass and transplants to fat reduction and rhinoplasty—and “Rutkow has a raconteur’s touch” (San Francisco Chronicle) as he draws on his five-decade career to show us how we got here. Comprehensive, authoritative, and captivating, Empire of the Scalpel is “a fascinating, well-rendered story of how the once-impossible became a daily reality” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).

©2022 Ira Rutkow. All rights reserved. Excerpt from "Negro Hero" by Gwendolyn Brooks. Reprinted by consent of Brooks Permissions. (P)2022 Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

What listeners say about Empire of the Scalpel

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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Philosophical Slippery Slope

From a completely technical standpoint, this is a great book for the layman interested in surgery. It truly is fascinating and incredible how far we have come in this medical and scientific frontier.
An important issue not to miss, however, is that throughout the book, and especially in the first few chapters, the author heavily contrasts the ancients’ “religious” and supernatural beliefs about human anatomy against our modern “scientific” and factual understanding of the world. He states that surgery needed to become “unshackled” from religion in order to reach its true potential. But there is a grave mistake in this distinction.
Even if you can precisely dissect an entire human cadaver into 10,000 parts, and assign a name and function to each one of them, you’ve still only explained what a human being is made out of, not what a human being IS. In other words, even though the Greeks may have been completely mistaken about the four humors in the body, they at least knew what a man and a woman were, and that you can’t reassign gender by simply removing/implanting breasts or adding a fake penis or vagina. Today we can accurately describe and even see through ultrasound a prenatal 8-month old baby and then proceed to surgically dismember it inside its mother’s womb. In short, once surgery and “medicine” have been unhitched from the religious and spiritual, they inevitably loses sight of WHAT life is, for they are wholly unfit to answer that question.
We are at a turning point in surgery and science in general, and if we continue to insist that God has nothing to do with science, the next history of surgery written 100 years from now will be a horror story.

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Great job

History of surgery summarized in a very nice way. Put together in a way that is easy to follow and remember.

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really interesting history

I love a good story, and the story of surgery across time is fascinating. the information is solid, and the reader is great. Looking forward to learning more about robotic surgery soon

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An old Operating Room nurse learns.

I absolutely enjoyed this book. I first learned about it on NPR. This gave me the impetus to find it on Audible. I immediately downloaded it. The history of surgery was fascinating. I have told my surgeon friends about it. I’m sure even they will learn something. Even non medical people will enjoy this book. I am listening to it the second time!

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The casual reader will gobble this up but....

There is no doubt that the lay public will buy this and revel in many of the stories. that said clinical readers will find themselves split between, "Gee I didn't know that! and that is clearly factually wrong!" in places

Moreover they will find the term " knife bearer" and "knife wielder" used dozens if not hundreds of times throughout the book annoying and overly dramatic not to mention the knife is used often less that 30sec in a case.

The performance is fair at best there are innumerable mispronunciations and a more talented reader would have had more life to the stories.

Finally, the book is not improved with the periodic self justification of his own personal story in the book. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an open hernia surgeon for one's entire career, however it does not give one the gravitas of a Francis Moore to make general pronouncements of motivation when one was actually sitting on the sidelines during some of the most exciting times in surgical innovation.

I do appreciate some of the great stories and I think surgeons should read the book since their patients clearly will.

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moderately good

i've been a practicing surgeon for 42 years. There's some interesting history in the book, but the last few chapters leave out too much, particularly about laparoscopic surgery and the way general surgeons were taught to remove gallbladders by gynecologists by operating on pigs. overall OK, but lost its appeal to me during the last few hours.