Robert Liston was born on the 28th of October 1794 in Ecclesmachan, Scotland, from Henry Liston, religious Scotsman and inventor. The little Robert was named after his paternal grandfather, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Liston studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and became surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of the same city in 1818. His study and practice were almost entirely focused on surgery and anatomy. He became teacher and doctor but, due to the many discussions with his colleagues, he left Scotland in 1835 heading to London where he carried on teaching and practicing surgery.
Despite the hatred he received from his colleagues for his caustic and presumptuous character, he hold a completely different behaviour with patients: he was said to be lovely and careful towards them, especially the ones from a lower class and his fame as a surgeon grew up rapidly. Even though there was no intention of hurting people
at that time anaesthesia was a completely unknown field
It was therefore fundamental to execute rapid and precise operations in order to reduce to its minimum the pain for the patient and improve the chance of survival to the surgical practice.
Most of surgeons used to lose one patient every 4, while Liston had an average of one lost every 10 operated
The doctor was famous for being able to amputate a leg in just 2 minutes and a half. He made history also for the removal of a scrotal tumor of 20 kg (45 lb) in just 4 minutes.
Every one of his operations, generally followed by a wide audience, was used to starting with him saying:
“Time me gentlemen”
which would indicate the starting of the timer. After that the operation would begin, he would proceed with the trim of the flesh with a knife, which he would quickly put between his teeth, followed by the fracture of the bone with a saw. Once the procedure of the cut was over, he would sew it all up, trying to have the patient losing the least amount of blood. The operation, depending on the limb and area of the wound, used to last around 2 minutes and a half.
Thanks to his incredible speed, Liston was known as “the Fastest Knife in the West End”
In a few occasions that same unbelievable speed turned upon him, though. In one of those, the surgeon reached the not enviable record of 300% of mortality in one operation.
As it used to happen, Liston was supposed to amputating a leg to a patient. Once the cutting had started, the patient began to writhe in pain. The assistants attempted a blockage but in vain. In that chaos Liston tried to perform the amputation either way, but trimmed off the fingers of an assistant and the coat of someone in the audience.
The person in the audience thought to have been wounded and died out of fear, while the patient and assistant died in the following days due to infections contracted through the operation. That is the only surgery in history which resulted in a death rate of 300%.
Around the end of his career, in 1846, Liston performed the first surgery in Europe where it was used anaesthesia through ether. The patient’s name was Frederick Churchill. After the anaesthesia, the surgeon needed only 25 seconds to complete the amputation.
Sadly, the legendary Fastest Knife in the West End did not survive enough to see all the potential of the anaesthetics applied to surgery; he died in 1847 in a sailing boat accident.