LONDON, ENGLAND Robert Liston was the fastest knife in the West End. He could amputate a leg in 21/2 minutes.
He lived during the 1840s at No. 5 Clifford Street, off Bond Street in Mayfair.
|His three-story house with tall downstairs windows, elegantly spiralling oak staircase and boot-scraper, now faces the club that invented Buck's fizz.
Liston was an incorrigible bustler, even for a surgeon. He eschewed carriages, visited his patients on horseback, and loved hunting.
|Was the red, pulsating tumor in a small boy's neck a straightforward abscess or a dangerous aneurism of the carotid artery?|
He was six foot two, and operated in a bottle-green coat with Wellington boots. He sprung across the bloodstained 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.
Liston invented see-through isinglass adhesive tape, the "bull-dog" artery forceps, and a leg splint still used during World War II. The son of a Scots minister, he graduated from Edinburgh, became first "The Great Northern Anatomist" of Blackwood's Magazine, was rumored enthusiastically to "resurrect" his own corpses.
An abrupt, abrasive, argumentative man, unfailingly charitable to the poor and tender to the sick, impossibly vain, he was vilely unpopular among his fellow surgeons at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. He relished operating successfully in the reeking tenements of the Grassmarket and Lawnmarket on patients they had discharged as hopelessly incurable. They conspired to bar him from the wards, banishing him South where he became professor of surgery at University College Hospital in London and made a fortune.
It was Robert Liston who performed, on December 21, 1846, the first operation under anesthesia in Europe. Only comment: "This Yankee dodge beats mesmerism hollow." The leg hit the sawdust in the bucket after 21/2 minutes, but his talent for surgical velocity was already outdated.
Liston's fourth most famous case
Removal in four minutes of a 45-pound scrotal tumor, whose owner had to carry it around in a wheelbarrow.
Liston's third most famous case
Argument with his intern. Was the red, pulsating tumor in a small boy's neck a straightforward abscess of the skin? Or a dangerous aneurism of the carotid artery? "Pooh!" Liston exclaimed impatiently. "Whoever heard of an aneurism in a boy so young?" Flashing a knife from his waistcoat pocket, he lanced it. Intern's note: "Out leaped arterial blood, and the boy fell." The patient died but the artery lives, in the University College Hospital pathology museum, specimen No. 1256.
Liston's second most famous case
Amputated the leg in 21/2 minutes, but in his enthusiasm the patient's testicles as well.
Liston's most famous case
Amputated the leg in under 21/2 minutes (the patient died afterward in the ward from hospital gangrene, they usually did in those pre-Listerian days). He amputated in addition, the fingers of his young assistant (who died afterward in the ward from hospital gangrene, they usually did in those pre-Listerian days). He also slashed through the coattails 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 a 300 percent mortality.