Future Med Students: Try To Learn Something From This Guy

Bobby Liston, the G.O.A.T. surgeon of the 1800s.

Julian Apolinario
October 27, 2019

We are very lucky to live in this day and age; a time without slavery, a time where people are accepted for who they are, and most importantly, a time with the internet. However, there’s something that all of us take for granted: “drinking like they’re coming to saw your leg off” is only an expression.

Back in the 1800s, doctors fully embodied the expression “can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em,” because they’d literally either save you or kill you. See, at the time, the odds of dying if you went to a surgeon were roughly 25%, meaning that people who played Russian Roulette had a better chance of not dying than people who needed to get a leg removed. Conversely, you couldn’t wait and hope that the infection in your arm would just go away, so 75% was better than nothing.

Not only that, but there was no anesthesia at the time, so the best you were going to get was a swig of whiskey and a hard slap on the back before you got held down by three medical students and operated on by your likely half-drunk doctor. And even after all of that effort, you might just die of another infection from your newly amputated leg. All of these factors combined meant that surgery was a necessary evil, and the best surgeons were smart, quick, and cleaned up after themselves, which made doctors and hitmen have a lot in common for a few years there.

Robert Liston was all that and more. Born and raised a Scotsman, Liston entered university at 14 years old and chose to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, eventually specializing in anatomy and surgery. At only 21 (a dream for anyone wanting to go into pre-med) he became the house surgeon for the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Everyone recognized that this man, barely out of his teen years, was an amazing surgeon, but why?

Liston was an terrific surgeon for many reasons: he was clean, he washed his hands, and he used good tools. However, Liston could be as clean as he wanted and use a chainsaw made of glass, but still, all anyone would say about him was “man, that guy was fast.”

And fast he was. Liston could amputate a leg in under three minutes, an impressive feat when you think about how modern surgeons take more than thirty minutes to remove one toe. Because of this, Robert became known as “the fastest knife in the West End,” something that sounds like the nickname for a British John Wick. Naturally, he had some downsides too. He sounded very cocky, his catchphrase being an instruction to his audiences to “time me, gentlemen”. Also, if he even heard that you might be a sloppy surgeon, he’d yell at you worse than Gordon Ramsay on Hell’s Kitchen. Surprise, surprise, he was also a brutal teacher, the type that fails their student for an 89%. However, for all his faults, Robert was generally held in good esteem, and managed to completely flip that 25% mortality rate on its head, maintaining a 10% mortality rate during his career.

However, Robert slipped up sometimes, since naturally, speed was of the essence, and who cared if their surgeon was a centimetre too far to the right? Unless, you’re the guy that lost his right testicle to Robert’s blade. While he probably wasn’t too disappointed that he got to live and all, he only wanted the leg removed, and wasn’t too keen on that extra 5% off.

However, this incident seems like a minor issue when compared to his most famous mishap: Robert was doing his average, run of the mill leg surgery, when something happened. Maybe he was having an off day, but he accidentally took two fingers off one of his assistants on the down- swing of his blade, and on the upswing, he cut through a spectator’s jacket. The man was so frightened, he collapsed and died from the scare. Luckily for him, he was soon joined by Liston’s assistant and the amputee, who both died from infections of their wounds caused by none other than good old Robert “10%” Liston.

Robert Liston accomplished many things, but above all else, holds the record for highest mortality rate in a single surgery: 300%.

*Liston was actually a very good surgeon FOR HIS TIME and it is uncertain whether or not these stories are actually true.*

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