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

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 Was Known As "The Fastest Knife In The West End"

    Liston's most defining feature as a surgeon was his incredible speed. He could remove a limb and stitch up the injury in as little as 28 seconds. More complex surgeries would take longer, but even an operation that involved removing a 45-pound tumor from a scrotum only took four minutes to complete. While this lightning-quick speed was certainly impressive, there were actual reasons behind why he moved so fast.

    Prior to the invention of anesthesia, surgery was extremely painful for patients. Not only was the pain inherently traumatic, but it also increased the risk of other problems. Patients who were in agony were more likely to panic and try to escape, which could cause injuries. They were also more likely to have heart attacks and other medical problems from stress. Also, the longer it took to get from incision to closing the wound, the more likely it was that the patient would bleed out. Liston's speed meant that his patients were far more likely to survive. 

  • He Once Killed Three People During One Surgery

    He Once Killed Three People During One Surgery
    Photo: Hill & Adamson / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In what is perhaps Robert Liston's most famous (if not fully substantiated) surgical mishap, he ended up killing three people, including the patient. In his haste to complete an operation, Liston accidentally cut off his surgical assistant's fingers. While trying to switch instruments, he also slashed a spectator's coat.

    The patient and the surgical assistant both died from infected wounds and the spectator died of shock. It is the only operation with a 300% mortality in the history of humankind. 

  • He Made Himself Obsolete

    One of Liston's most important breakthroughs was the use of ether to knock patients unconscious during surgery. Surgeons don't use ether anymore because of side effects like lung irritation and vomiting. It is also flammable in windowless rooms.

    Yet at the time, it was the best thing that had happened to the surgical profession for years because being unconscious was better than being awake for an operation. By introducing anesthetics, Liston made his own special skill of lightning operating speed obsolete.

  • He Invented Surgical Equipment That Is Still Used Today

    Liston's contributions to surgical history extend beyond the use of ether and his ability to conduct surgery quickly. He also invented several surgical instruments and procedures.

    This includes the Liston splint, a method of immobilizing fractured bones that is still widely used today. He also created the Liston knife, which is still used in amputations. He even invented a type of forceps with a built-in snap that kept the tips pressed together to help manage arterial bleeding. 

  • 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.