For most of his medical career Robert Liston (born in 1794 in Scotland) was a well-regarded and competent surgeon. His surgical skills were phenomenal, with much lower mortality rates than most of his fellow physicians.
The reason for Dr. Liston’s low mortality rate was his incredible speed when performing surgeries. Since there was no anesthesia in his day and limited means for controlling bleeding during surgery, a surgeon’s speed could mean the difference between surviving an operation or bleeding out before it was finished. Liston was known as the “fastest knife on the West End”- the West End was the fashionable area of London in which he worked. He was known to tell spectators in his operating room to time him to see how fast he could finish an operation. Because of his speed and skill, his mortality rate during surgery was only about 10% at a time when the average surgical mortality rate was closer to 25%.
During one surgery, though, Dr. Liston had some incredibly bad luck, and it is this mishap that has been remembered more than his many successes.
Dr. Liston was getting ready to amputate a patient’s leg at the hip. According to bystander reports, he was so focused on speed that when he brought his surgical blade down he also cut off the fingers of his assistant. In the confusion that resulted after this accident, Dr. Liston also cut through the dress coat of an elderly doctor who was observing the surgery.
Dr. Liston did not actually cut the older man, but it gave him a severe fright. Seeing all the blood, he must have thought he had been sliced open. The terrified man then fell to the floor, had a massive heart attack, and died on the spot.
If this had been the only death to result from this surgery, we might not be talking about it today. Unfortunately for Dr. Liston, this botched operation would claim two more lives. Within days of the surgery, the original patient’s stump became gangrenous and he died. The surgical instrument he used must have been contaminated somehow because his assistant- the one who lost his fingers- also died from an infection shortly thereafter. This is the only surgery ever recorded to have a 300% mortality rate.
Given this horrible incident, it is not surprising that Dr. Liston became the first surgeon in Europe to use ether to sedate a patient. If you ever need surgery, you can thank Dr. Liston for helping to popularize the use of anesthesia. It’s just unfortunate that he will forever be remembered for causing three deaths while operating on one person.