‘Time Me, Gentlemen’
The Fastest Surgeon of the 19th Century
Dr. Robert Liston was known both for his showmanship and his effectiveness.
Before anaesthesia, speed was essential to minimizing pain and improving odds of survival.
Liston had a reputation as one of the fastest surgeons around who could amputate a leg in less than two minutes. This was important because the faster the surgery the less pain the patient dealt with, which translated into higher survival rates. Besides the speed, surgery back then was also sort of like a fight between the doctor’s aids and patient. Each operation had to have multiple nurses holding the patient down because it’s probably human nature to not sit idly by as your leg gets cut off.
Liston’s career continued to improve alongside his skills with a knife. However, that all changed one day when he was performing a routine leg amputation.
The story goes that Liston was performing a routine leg amputation when the patient started thrashing around. In the chaos, Liston accidentally slipped and managed to cut one of his assistant’s fingers off and amputated more that he needed to of the patient’s leg at the same time.
Both the assistant and patient died a few days later of infections, but they weren’t the only casualties. A visiting doctor had also died in the operating room after Liston had accidentally slashed his coat. The doctor, who was an older gentleman, thought that the blood from the patient, which was squirting all over the place, was his own and had a heart attack.
All of this resulted in the first and only surgery with a 300 percent mortality rate because three people died from one patient’s operation. Liston’s reputation thereafter wasn’t for his skill as a surgeon, a profession he was actually very skilled at, it was for becoming the only person to kill people in the operating room who weren’t even on the table.