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

Updated April 23, 2020 317.9k 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 Helped Patients Who No One Else Would

    Liston was disgusted by what he saw as cowardice in some of his fellow surgeons. Many surgeons simply gave up and abandoned patients who they were not sure how to treat, but not Liston - he was willing to help any patient in need.

    Because Liston was so popular, this was a major undertaking. He would sometimes have patients camping out in his waiting room for days. This earned him a reputation for being showy, which led his peers to want him banned from the wards. 

  • He Publicly Denounced Those He Disagreed With

    Robert Liston was a man who didn't hesitate to speak his mind. If he disapproved of a medical practice, he was absolutely going to say so. For example, Liston publicly denounced fellow surgeon James Yearsley for treating stammering by removing the tonsils and uvula. While he was correct in his opinion in the aforementioned case, he was not always right. Sometimes, he made the wrong call with tragic results.

    Once, he got into an argument with a fellow surgeon about whether a mass on a young boy's neck was a skin abscess or an aneurysm of the carotid artery. Convinced that he was correct, Liston plunged a knife into the mass. The child bled to death as a result. 

  • He Had Deep Compassion For His Patients

    Photo: Samuel John Stump / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Despite his image as a sometimes reckless surgeon, Liston did seem to genuinely care about his patient's emotional well-being. If a patient appeared to be dreading the procedure, he would postpone or cancel it until the patient could be sufficiently reassured. He didn't believe in keeping his patients uninformed, choosing instead to tell them what was about to happen and why.

    After a surgery was complete, he didn't think his job was over - he still had to check in on the patient and make sure that they were healing well, both physically and emotionally.