Robert Liston 1794-1847

Robert Liston was born in Ecclesmachan Scotland. He was the son of a Pastor, and was educated in Edinburgh and London. He was appointed lecturer of anatomy in Edinburgh.

He left Scotland for London in the 1830s after disagreements with colleagues at the Edinburgh hospital where he worked; he was known to be a very abrasive and arrogant person. 

He was known also to be extremely quick which lessened the suffering of the patient who was being operated upon. He was also the inventor of the Liston splint, which is still in use at some hospitals today.

There are stories of occasions when his operations went wrong due to the speed at which he attempted them.

The two most notable examples of this were when he amputated a man's testicles along with his leg by mistake and another operation where the patient died of infection, he cut off the fingers of his assistant (who also died due to infection) and slashed the coat of a spectator who died of fright.


Robert Liston is the only surgeon in known history to have performed an operation with a 300% mortality rate.

There is, however, apparently no precise source for these stories, so they might well just be regarded as urban legends.


Although it sounds as though this man should not be let loose on anyone, Robert Liston was the best surgeon of his time and all those who could afford his services would have had no hesitation in doing so. He saved a lot of people that would have died a miserable long and painful death.

It is easy to judge using our standards.


On December 21 1846, at University College Hospital, London, Robert Liston, performed the first operation in England using anaesthetic (Ether) administered by Dr Squire. He operated on a patient named Frederick Churchill; he performed a above knee amputation with great success. He was to say to his audience of medical professionals “This Yankee dodge, gentleman, and beats mesmerism hollow160 He knew now that the “age of agony” had come to an end in surgery. Robert Liston was to die shortly after in December 1847.


There are those who saw Liston as a mad eccentric surgeon, however, you must understand that speed was of the essence in pre-anaesthetic surgery, who would you rather amputate your leg whilst completely awake, Liston who will complete the procedure in 2-3 minutes or another less competent surgeon in 5-10 minutes, I know who I would choose. We cannot judge these surgeons using our modern day expectations.





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