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The Story Behind The Only Surgeon In History With A 300% Mortality Rate

Updated April 23, 2020 316.2k views11 items

Robert Liston was a Scottish surgeon who lived from 1794 to 1847. He is known for being one of the fastest and most effective surgeons in history. He operated at a time when unorthodox medical practices were utilized and when speed was essential because there was no anesthesia. Thus, most of his surgeries, from amputations to the removal of tumors, took less than five minutes to complete. 

Liston is also known for being the only surgeon to ever kill three people while trying to do surgery on one person. After reading some facts about him, you might conclude that surgeon Robert Liston was a menace to society, or you might decide that he was a gift to the medical world. Either way, he certainly left his mark. Read on below to discover some disturbing and intriguing facts about the Scottish surgeon. 

  • He Had Some Serious Surgical Mishaps

    Operating at speeds that metaphorically broke the sound barrier in surgery meant that there was a lot of room for error. While the most extreme case was the operation with a 300% mortality rate, it definitely was not the only time Listen made mistakes.

    For example, Liston successfully amputated a patient’s leg in an incredible 2.5 minutes. In his haste, he also removed the man's testicles. 

  • He Actually Cared About Hygiene

    For modern surgeons, paying attention to personal hygiene is a mandatory part of the job. This wasn't the case for surgeons during Liston's time. According to a British surgeon named Sir Fredrick Teves, "There was no object in being clean... Indeed, cleanliness was out of place. It was considered to be finicking and affected. An executioner might as well manicure his nails before chopping off a head."

    Not only was cleanliness considered affected, filth was actually celebrated - bloodstained and pus-covered surgical aprons were proof of your surgical prowess. Cleanliness meant you hadn't done anything of note. Most surgeons had uncleanly habits until 1847, when Vienna physician Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis made the connection between surgical hygiene and infection and instituted rules about surgical cleanliness.

    Liston was an exception. Long before 1847, he was washing his hands and changing into a clean apron before surgery. He used clean surgical sponges and his surgical dressings were soaked only in cold water instead of the usual salves, which could harbor germs. While most people believe that this was due to personal preference rather than knowledge of germ theory, these practices probably saved the lives of many of his patients.

  • His Surgery Doubled As Entertainment

    Photo: Mike Peel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Those who got to sit in on Robert Liston's procedures weren't just there to learn from him. Some were also there to be entertained. Liston was known for his skill, but he was also known for his showmanship.

    Because his surgeries rarely lasted more than five minutes, he had time to work the crowd into a lather by asking them to time him, holding the surgical knife in his mouth as he worked. Screams from the very conscious patient also added to the entertainment value. 

  • He Confronted An Alleged Murderer

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One of Robert Liston's most famous confrontations was with Robert Knox, a surgeon who collaborated with the infamous William Burke and William Hare. Burke and Hare took cadavers from graves and sold the parts to anatomists and students for dissection. Their crimes went well beyond grave robbing - the two started killing people once they ran out of conveniently stashed bodies.

    When Liston suspected that Knox might have been using one of these illicitly acquired bodies in a demonstration, he burst into Knox's laboratory with a group of students. There, he found the suggestively posed corpse of a young woman named Mary Paterson. Liston threw Knox to the ground in fury before taking Paterson's body away for a proper burial.