You might have heard about an infamous surgery with a 300% mortality rate: The doctor was so careless that he managed to kill the patient, a nurse, and somehow even a bystander. But that operation was but one chapter in the legend of famed 19th-century surgeon Robert Liston, who approached amputations the same way a contestant on Chopped approaches a yellow onion. Let us begin ...
There are certain statements that we're all unequivocally on board with, like The invention of toilet paper was a solid day for humanity or The internet was a mistake. Here's another: Having an amputation before anesthesia wasn't super chill.
Before we dig into Liston, who was kind of the original video game speedrunner -- if life or death surgeries were the Green Hill Zone from Sonic -- we have to first understand surgery in his time. If you were getting your ass operated on, your ass was usually going to be awake and feeling it. Every single surgery had the potential to be a goddamn Saw movie, and the patients were almost always watching it.
What's worse is that amputations were super hot. They were the old-school equivalent of the opioid crisis. Broken finger? The whole thing's got to go. Stubbed your toe? Say goodbye to that foot. Oh, you got a cavity? Shoot. You poor, poor bastard. Doctors were handing out scrips for choppings like candy, and in an era when the only way to slightly minimize pain and maximize survival chances was speed, that meant Liston was the guy to call.
Robert Liston was a human Slap Chop ... for humans. He was dubbed "The Fastest Knife in the West End." His ability to perform amputations at blinding speeds made him the most sought-after surgeon in all of London.
Operating out of London's University College Hospital, Liston only lost about one in every ten patients, while his competitors at a nearby hospital lost about one in four. The reason? The dude was fast. He had been able to get his leg amputations down to around the two-minute mark. That's right, he could perform four leg amputations during one playthrough of "Stairway." In the amount of time it takes your office coffee machine to spin up, Robert Liston could have turned you into Lieutenant Dan.
Because spraining your ankle meant hopping on the surgical band saw back in the day, people lined up to see Liston. Literally. Would-be patients stacked up outside of his office like the Black Friday weirdos outside of a Best Buy. And Liston loved the challenge. He saw these hordes of potential patients -- many rejected by other surgeons who believed them too far gone -- as the future mise en place for today's menu. His reputation for being both the fastest and the most daring made him the toast of the town. And then, ultimately, a number in a Cracked article.
Things you don't want your surgeon saying upon bursting into the room:
"I can't be hungover, I'm still drunk!"
"I don't even have to take off my roller blades!"
"Time me, gentlemen!"
According to the legend of Robert Liston, that last one became something a catchphrase. Though the veracity of these claims has been disputed, medical historian Dr. Richard Gordon produced much of the history of Liston as we've come to know it. According to him, shouting, "Time me, gentlemen!" was but one of the many showy aspects in Liston's surgical methods. Gordon further claims that Liston wasn't just known to set a timer before pulling out the saw, but would even place his bloody knife between his teeth to free up his hands. Basically, these accounts take what we know about Liston as verifiable fact -- his speed and skill in the field of chopping limbs -- and adds a swashbuckling spice that's hard not to love.
The skeptics, however, think he was much more boring. There was probably no way he had the time -- much less the complete disconnect from basic humanity -- to boast and brag and do sweet backflips during these surgeries.
Once again, according to Gordon, Liston eventually got his leg amputations down to the sub-30-second range. That's right, before your microwave popcorn even starts popping, Liston's done popped off your damn leg.
And here is where we start talking about what exactly can go wrong when your surgeon is essentially a human blender. First we have the time he accidentally chopped off a dude's balls in the middle of one of his speedy leg amputations. There's a lot to unpack there. How do you even break that news? The most famous case, however, was the "300% mortality rate" one.
Here's the scene: There's a dude on the table, and he's screaming because he's awake and about to get his leg cut off. He's also squirming because he's awake and about to get his leg cut off. Liston's got some guys with him specifically to hold the man down while he works his magic. Liston's cutting into the man's leg and everything's on course. Except in his hurry, Liston also cut into his assistant's fingers. And by "into" I mean off. 'Cause Liston's gonna do what Liston does. He doesn't do little cuts; he chops until the choppin' is done. So here's Liston lopping off his assistant's fingers, but continuing with the job and taking the actual patient's leg in the process. We've now got a legless man and a fingerless man. They've also both now got gangrene, because this time period was a horror show. They both absolutely die a few days later.
If you're following, we're only at 200% mortality, and you were promised 300%. In his slicing and dicing frenzy, Liston caught an older spectator's coat and cut through it. Though the man himself wasn't hurt, he was now covered in blood, because these old-time surgeries looked like Pinhead getting to run Nickelodeon Studios for the day. Thinking he'd been slashed open -- because he was covered in blood and this insane doctor was whipping blades around like he just hit his Limit Break -- the old man panicked, fell to the floor, had a heart attack, and died.
Or at least, that's the story everybody tells. It's hard to separate the man from the myth. We do know he was able to eventually perform the first surgery with anesthesia -- a moment that was either the greatest day of his life or felt like when the NFL killed team celebrations in the early 2000s.
Either way, what's most fascinating about this whole saga is that there was a man out there so good and so fast at removing body parts that "He once accidentally lopped off a dude's balls, and killed a stranger without even cutting him" are considered plausible anecdotes.
Because people like Robert Liston chopped people up while they were completely awake, today our doctors can scroll through Instagram with one hand while they remove your 45-pound genital tumor with the other, all while you're completely numb and watching Hitch on the operating room TV.
For more, check out What Your Doctor Wants To Tell You, But Can't (From A Medical Physician):
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