How did surgeon Robert Liston accidentally kill three people in one day?

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Robert Liston operating
Robert Liston operating on a patient.
Credit: Wellcome Collection // CC BY 4.0

Yes, you read that right. Robert Liston did kill three people in one day. Robert Liston managed to kill three people in one surgery. How you may ask? Let us look and see what happened during the only surgery to achieve a 300% mortality rate.  

Who was Robert Liston?

Portrait of Robert Liston
Portrait of Robert Liston in c. 1845.
Credit: Wellcome Collection // CC BY 4.0

Robert Liston was a top Scottish surgeon operating in London during the Victorian era. Well, as we all know, to become a surgeon takes dedication. It takes years of practice and even more time to study and become the best in your field. Robert Liston studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh from 1808, aged just 14. When he reached 16, he became the assistant to eminent Dr. John Barclay – a top anatomist. After six years of study by Dr. John Barclays side, Liston traveled to London to spend a year working under Willaim Blizard, another top surgeon at the time. After which, Liston returned to Scotland to teach alongside James Syme, who, like Liston, was a pioneering surgeon at the time. 

During his teaching period, Liston attracted the attention and admiration of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, where he became a house surgeon under the surgeon Dr. George Bell. Still, after four years of work, Liston was dismissed due to a disagreement between the two surgeons. Liston wasn’t reinstated until 1827, and a year later, Liston was promoted to the operating surgeon. 

Liston, during 1833 applied to the University of Edinburgh to become the Professor of Anatomy. However, James Syme presented a higher ability for teaching, which is vital in becoming a professor. And finally, in 1841, he was elected as a fellow of the royal society, just six years before his death. 

But that’s not what you wanted to know, is it! You want to hear about the incredible feat that resulted in the death of three people—one of which nowhere near the operating table. 

The Only Surgeon with a 300% mortality rate.

Before anesthesia, speed was of the essence during surgery. Robert Liston was known as the fastest knife in the west. He developed his technique over time, before anesthesia. Although this sounds crazy, it was for an excellent reason. The average surgeon would lose about 1 in 4 patients during operations as the pain and shock would kill. Robert Liston, thanks to his speed, only lost 1 in 10 patients. Sometimes, he got carried away, though; he once removed a man’s testicles whilst removing his leg, but the most well-known mishap is the surgery that took the life of three people. 

Listons practiced hands were well known and in-demand during the times he was practicing, and patients sometimes camped in his waiting room so that they could see him. Liston tried as hard as he could to see everyone, no matter what their condition was. Liston was also fond of treating those patients, who other surgeons have dismissed and claimed were beyond help. This attitude gained Liston a reputation amongst the other surgeons as being a show-off.

Fast-forward to the day of the operation and the day Liston achieved the 300% mortality rate. Liston was due to perform a leg amputation, a simple enough procedure requiring only a few tools: A knife, a saw, some assistants (to hold the patient), and a leg that needs amputating. No, Liston being the fastest knife on the west end, was reported to have this operation finished in less than three minutes, even getting down to twenty-eight seconds on a good day.  

Liston was so confident in his abilities that he used to call out to all watching, 

“Time me, Gentlemen, Time me.”

This catchphrase was uttered before every surgery to the amazement of all those watching. And so on this day, he uttered the phrase, then began the procedure. The patient was lying on the table, and Liston’s assistant was holding them down. Now, Liston was so focused on the speed of his cuts that he took his assistant’s fingers off with one clean cut. Swinging the blade back up, Liston nearly caught a spectator’s coat which narrowly missed slicing the old spectator, who, out of shock and fear, had a heart attack and collapsed, he passed away. 

Unknown to Liston at the time, the death of the old spectator as we know was only the first. The second and third deaths came a few days later, but still due to the operation. It later became apparent that the equipment Dr. Liston used had been infected and not sanitized in any way; the assistant’s finger and the patient’s amputated leg became infected, developed Gangrene, and later passed away due to a massive infection.

His Legacy

Robert Liston in circa 1845
Robert Liston photographed in circa 1845.
Credit: PICRYL // Public Domain

Despite Liston’s downfalls during his career, he was still a top surgeon, probably one of the best surgeons of his age. Liston not only left behind strange and bizarre stories but a colossal legacy within his field. His teaching methods and theatres were places of learning, and notoriously high standards challenged his students though each and everyone was treated fairly by Liston. Liston encouraged and nurtured an environment of continually pursuing excellence and was not ashamed of criticizing his peers. His devotion towards his patients showed so much compassion when people were terrified that they would not survive the operation. Liston listened, and he understood that he had a duty to his patients and how they were feeling. 

Liston’s techniques enabled him to proceed with all his operations with confidence and agility, both required in a world without anesthetic. These techniques were a vital part of his method and his teaching. And although the bizarre occurrence of the operation led to the death of three people: Dr. Liston was a wholly compassionate surgeon and doctor. He was utterly devoted to all his patients and was sure that his patients were best served by utilizing his skill with the knife and his vast stores of knowledge. 

Robert Liston eventually died on the 7th of December 1847 of an aneurysm at his home in London. 

A marble statue was erected, and an award was created in his honor to celebrate his life and achievements and ensure his legacy lives on until today.   

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