Robert Liston Biography


Birthday: October 28, 1794 (Scorpio)

Born In: Ecclesmachan, West Lothian, Scotland

Robert Liston was a Scottish surgeon known for his speed in performing surgeries. He was very popular in an era prior to the development of anesthetics. The son of renowned clergyman and inventor Henry Liston, he is known for handling many complicated cases, including one in which he performed the amputation of a limb in just 28 seconds. Described as ‘the fastest knife in the West End’ by English surgeon Richard Gordon, Liston studied medicine from the University of Edinburgh under eminent anatomist Dr John Barclay. His works earned him the first spot in Blackwell Magazine’s 'The Great Northern Anatomist'. In 1818, Liston joined the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and soon earned a reputation of an argumentative but unfailingly charitable man. He performed his first operation under modern anesthesia in Europe in 1846. Also an inventor, Liston invented bulldogs forceps, transparent isinglass sticking plaster, and a leg splint, all of which are still used today. The legendary surgeon died of an aneurysm in 1847, at the age of 53.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Robert

Died At Age: 53


father: Robert Liston

mother: Margaret Ireland

Born Country: Scotland

Surgeons Scottish Men

Died on: December 7, 1847

place of death: London

Cause of Death: Aneurysm

More Facts

education: University of Edinburgh

awards: Fellow of the Royal Society

Childhood & Early Life
Robert Liston was born on 28 October 1794, in Ecclesmachan, West Lothian, Scotland, to Henry Liston and Margaret Ireland.
He studied anatomy first under Dr John Barclay at the University of Edinburgh and later in London.
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Robert Liston was hired as a surgeon by the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in 1818. He continued his studies in London at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and the London Hospital.
At the age of 22, he joined the Royal College of Surgeons. Later, he moved to Edinburgh and worked there till 1828.
During his time in Edinburgh, Liston became a distinguished personality by successfully handling cases that were considered incurable by his peers. Although he emerged as the best surgeon of his times, he also earned a ‘bad’ reputation because of his argumentative and critical nature.
In 1835, the surgeon returned to London and joined University College Hospital as the professor of clinical surgery, a position he held until his death.
His career reached further heights when he became known as the ‘fastest knife in the West End’, performing surgeries in a matter of minutes.
Robert Liston developed a new method for amputating legs. He would grab the leg and start operating below the knee. He would cut back and forth, drop the detached leg into a bucket and sew the leg in just two and a half minutes.
Known for his effectiveness as well as speed, he would often begin the operation with the phrase “time me, gentlemen”.
Although his style of operating might have seemed careless, his speed of handling surgeries minimized the patients’ pain and also improved their odds of surviving the surgeries.
Liston’s argumentative nature sometimes led to dangerous situations. Once, in an argument with a house surgeon, he plunged his knife into the patient’s neck, causing arterial blood to gush out.
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Between 1835 and 1840, the legendary surgeon handled about 66 amputation cases, out of which only ten were unsuccessful.
Robert Liston practiced good hygiene while operating, unlike his peers. He was known to be critical of unethical behavior of other surgeons and was sympathetic to his patients, especially poor ones. He was a strict teacher to his medical students and expected optimal performance from them.
On 21 December 1846, he performed his first operation in Europe using modern anesthesia. Carried out at the University College Hospital, he used ether for the surgery.
Most Famous Surgeries
Robert Liston’s most famous operation was one in which he amputated the patient’s leg in less than two and a half minutes. However, the patient died afterward. This surgery is also infamous for leading to the death of a young assistant whose fingers were amputated by Liston. He also slashed through the coat of a surgical spectator who died from fright.
In another famous case, he not just amputated a patient’s leg in two and a half minutes but also his testicles.
In one case, he began an argument with his house surgeon while treating a small boy who was being operated on for a pulsating tumor. The boy died and his artery was preserved in the University College Hospital pathology museum.
The surgeon also gained popularity for removing a 45-pound scrotal tumor in just four minutes.
Family & Personal Life
Robert Liston‘s grandfather was Scottish minister Robert Liston. Both shared the same name.
Robert Liston died of an aneurysm on 7 December 1847, at the age of 53. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery in North London, England.
In 1837, he published the book ‘Practical Surgeries,’ in which he argued about the importance of fast surgeries. In the book, he listed the operations that, according to him, should be completed rapidly.
Following his death, his peers set up a marble statue to honor him. They also decided to inaugurate a gold medal to be awarded annually under his signature name.

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