“That is not possible”, - you think, and you are dead wrong.
Robert Liston, described as the ‘The Great Northern Anatomist’ or the ‘fastest knife in the West’, was a pioneering surgeon who was widely considered to be the best of his era. His reputation spread throughout Europe and America, but at home in Britain, he was a bit of a controversial figure. He was both skilful and daring, and not short of self-confidence. He was also a showman and reveled in being able to carry out operations that others rejected. Liston struck a fine balance between rashness and speed. And in an age when hospital hygiene was unheard of, a high proportion of his patients lived to be grateful for the swiftness of his knife. It was Richard Gordon, a modern biographer of Liston, who christened him as ‘the fastest knife in the West’, meaning the West End of London where Liston worked as Professor of Clinical Surgery at University College. It is said that he could amputate a leg in a mere two and a half minutes, but that probably still felt like an age to the patient in question who was most likely suffering from shock as well as the pain.
Gordon described him as follows:
He was six foot two, and operated in a bottle-green coat with wellington boots. He sprung across the blood-stained boards upon his swooning, sweating, strapped-down patient like a duelist, calling, 'Time me gentlemen, time me!' to students craning with pocket watches from the iron-railinged galleries. Everyone swore that the first flash of his knife was followed so swiftly by the rasp of saw on bone that sight and sound seemed simultaneous. To free both hands, he would clasp the bloody knife between his teeth.
In addition to being a dab hand with a knife, Liston was also a teacher of surgical methods and an inventor. The list of his life saving inventions contains several medical instruments that even today remain in use. He invented the ‘Liston splint’, still in use to stabilize dislocations and fractures of the femur, the ‘bulldog’ locking forceps, which are still used to seal arteries against blood loss, and see-through, isinglass (Ichthyocolla) sticking plaster. As a teacher, Liston taught by example and taught simplicity in all operative procedures and in that capacity, he was also the author of ‘The Elements of Surgery’ and ‘Practical Surgery’, both of which were published in the 1830s.
One of the things he is most famous for is being the first surgeon in Europe to perform an operation using ether as an anesthetic. The ether, at that time a revolutionary new substance from America, was used on the patient and the operation took place on the 21st of December, 1846, at the University College Hospital in London. That was before another famous Scot, Sir James Young Simpson, who knew Liston and had observed his work, introduced chloroform. Liston’s ground breaking operation, typically for him being an amputation, was performed on one Frederick Churchill and took just twenty-eight seconds. You’d think he would have taken his time on that occasion, but maybe he was nonetheless wary of the efficacy of the ether. His success was reported thus, in the London ‘People’s Journal’: “Oh, what delight for every feeling heart… the announcement of this noble discovery of the power to still the sense of pain, and veil the eye and memory from all the horrors of an operation. ...we have conquered pain!”
In spite all the professional achievements, Robert Liston became popular among general public due to several famous cases from his surgical practice.
In the most famous case, Liston managed to amputate the leg for his patient in under 21⁄2 minutes, but the patient died afterwards in the ward from hospital gangrene). That was not the only outcome of his surgery. Due to the amazing speed of surgical procedures, Liston constantly disregarded of what is going around him. In rush, he amputated in addition the fingers of his young assistant, who also died afterwards in the ward from hospital gangrene. But that is not all! He also slashed through the coat tails of a distinguished surgical spectator, who was so terrified that the knife had pierced his vitals he dropped dead from fright.
That was the only operation in history with 300 percent mortality.
In another famous case, Robert Liston successfully amputated the patient’s leg in two and a half minutes, but in his enthusiasm the patient's testicles as well.
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