Friday, February 19, 2021

The Fastest Knife In The West

                                                              The fastest knife in the west

I want you to count to 29 seconds, or to look at your phone and wait for half a minute.

That  was the length of time that it took pioneering surgeon Robert Liston to amputate a leg. As this was in the days of pre anathetics, speed was of the essence as the poor patient would be drunk out of his mind on gin and would be biting into a leather strap,  tied down and then held down by various surgical assistants.

On one famous occasion Liston was doing a high amputation of the leg and removed a testicle as well (from the patient not from himself although....). But I guess that could be considered  as a 'buy one get one free' kind of deal.

So Robert Liston was born in 1794  and died in  1847, he was a Scot, educated at Edinburgh University and he's buried in Highgate Cemetry in London ( where Karl Marx famously is). I think I took a photograph of his gravestone but it's in a computer file somewhere.

Liston made a point of being quick and that in itself cut the mortality rate of the operation from 50% to 1 in 7. There is a very famous operation he carried out that had a 300% mortality rate.  The story may be apocraphal  but he  was doing a leg amputation where the patient died, his assistant lost a finger in the operation as he wasn't quick enough to get out the way and he died later of infection. And a bystander died of shock as a fast moving scalpel came his way, he got a fright, then a heart attack then passed away.

His catchphrase was 'time me Gentlemen'

He was a famed surgeon, although not without the odd mishap. As well as the testicle removal,  he  also tried to  drain a neck abcess by surgery and accidently  cut the carotid artery- not a situation consistant with life.

It's obvious now, but surgical procedure in those days encouraged audiences.  The same architects who designed theatres  of an acting type also designed operating theatres which is why we still call them theatres to this day. 

Liston is known to be a pioneer of surgery developing many innotative techniques.  He took on patients that were considered too far gone by other medics and sometimes, he did save them.  The big issue in those days was wet gangrene and I've not put any pictires on that on here  in case you were eating. It's an interesting condition and appears in two crime novels I can think of.

Liston was born in Ecclemachan. If  you can pronounce that after a double gin you're probably not drunk enough to have your limb amputated!



  1. Suddenly I feel that modern medicine isn't expensive at all...

  2. Uhh, considering what he cut off while working on a leg, I guess he wasn't known for performing circumcisions...though he certainly had more than enough balls to try.

  3. 'wet gangrene ... It's an interesting condition and occurs in at least two crime novels that I can think of.'

    Yup, including one of my own, Caro!

  4. I thank my lucky stars I live in the age of anesthesia and sanitation and antibiotics.