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Time me, gentlemen! Robert Liston: the legendary Scottish Surgeon nicknamed “The Fastest Knife in the West End”.

3 min read

Robert Liston was born on 28 October 1794 in Ecclesmachan, Scotland, and his father was the Reverend Henry Liston, the village minister and a pipe organ inventor. His name was the same of his paternal grandfather, who was the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The young Henry studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and became a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in 1818. He had a reputation as an argumentative and intimidating man, and another disagreement wit led him to open his own anatomy class, which attracted 60 students that winter!

His studies and practice were directed almost exclusively to surgery and anatomy. He then became a practicing lecturer and physician but, due to numerous quarrels with his colleagues, in 1835 he left Scotland in the direction of London, where he became a university professor and practicing surgeon.
Although he was hated by his colleagues for his caustic and pretentious character, he showed a completely different attitude towards patients, and his reputation as a surgeon grew rapidly.

At that time the anesthesia was completely unknown.
In an era where surgical skill meant boldness, precision, and especially speed, Liston became known widely for his surgical excellence.
It was therefore essential to perform rapid and precise interventions to minimize patient pain and improve their chances of survival after surgery.
Most surgeons lost one patient every four, while Liston lost one every ten.
The doctor was famous for being able to amputate a leg in just two and a half minutes, and he also remained in the history of his surgery to remove a scrotal tumor weighing 20 kilograms, which lasted only 4 minutes!

Each of his surgery, usually followed by a large audience, always began with a fateful:
“Time me gentlemen!”
Announcing the start of the stopwatch. After the surgery was announced, he cut the flesh with a knife and, as soon as it was finished, he quickly put it between his teeth and proceeded to cut the bone with the saw. Once the cutting operations were finished, he proceeded to close and re-sew everything, trying to make the patient lose less blood. The operation, in all, lasted about two and a half minutes.
Thanks to its speed, Liston was known as “The fastest knife in the West End”.

Occasionally, Liston’s speed and showmanship actually were a hindrance to his operations. Once, he took a patient’s testicles off along with the leg that was being amputated!
But his most famous mishap was the operation where he was moving so fast that he took off a surgical assistant’s fingers as he cut through a leg and, while switching instruments, slashed a spectator’s coat. The patient and the assistant both died from infections of their wounds, and the spectator was so scared that he’d been stabbed that he died of shock! The fiasco is said to be the only known surgery in history with a 300 percent mortality rate.

Toward the end of his career, in 1846, Liston performed the first surgery in Europe in which anesthesia was used, using ether. The patient was called Frederick Churchill, and after administering the anesthesia, the surgeon only needed 25 seconds to complete the amputation. Unfortunately, the legendary “Fastest knife in the West End” did not see the full potential of anesthetics applied to surgery, and he died in 1847 in a sailing accident.

Sources: Facts.org, Theatlantic.com. Images from web, public demain.
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