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On The Table With One of History’s Most Infamous Surgeons

Before the use of ether revolutionized surgery in 1846, Dr. Robert Liston was the premiere surgeon at his teaching hospital in London. In those days, surgery was a last resort, patients had to be restrained, and speed was essential. Liston was very good at what he did.

Richard Gordon, a surgeon and medical historian, calls Liston the “fastest knife in the West End.” His style may have seemed careless, but in the age before anesthesia, speed was essential to minimizing the patient’s pain and improving their odds of surviving surgery. Slower surgeons sometimes had pain-wracked and panicked patients wrestle free from their assistants and flee from the operating room, leaving a trail of blood behind them. Only about one of every 10 of Liston’s patients died on his operating table at London’s University College Hospital. The surgeons at nearby St. Bartholomew’s, meanwhile, lost about one in every four.

Liston’s quick hands were so sought after that patients sometimes had to camp out in his waiting room for days waiting for their turn to see him. Liston tried to see every last one of these patients, no matter their condition. He especially loved treating those cases that his fellow surgeons had dismissed as beyond help, which earned him a reputation among colleagues as showy.

Read more about Dr. Liston and the way surgery was done in the 19th century at mental_floss. Link


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