The Story of Robert Liston and his Surgical Skill

The new year is often a time of resolutions; promises to better oneself in a chosen area. Dr. Robert Liston, born October 28th, 1794, was a resolute gentleman, known for his incredible ability to perform surgeries at an alarmingly fast pace in order to reduce the pain and risk of shock and blood loss for the patient. Before anaesthetics were introduced into surgical practice, Liston’s speed often meant the difference between life and death for the person on the operating table.

Liston had something of a dual reputation among his fellows in medicine; he was known as a skilled surgeon with an argumentative personality, due in part to his strong convictions and deep care for his patients. He had a strong sense of decency and was not afraid to call out his fellow surgeons and teachers – and even engage in physical confrontations – if he suspected they had behaved indecently.

Amputating Instruments with Liston’s Long Knives & Forceps -Museum of Health Care 1979.7.1 a-o
Liston’s Amputation Knives – Museum of Health Care 1972.17.1

Two of the operations for which Liston is most famous involve the story of an amputation he performed in under two and a half minutes which resulted in a 300% mortality rate: the patient died of infection, as did his young assistant whose fingers Liston accidentally amputated, and a witness died of shock when the knife came too close to him. Another operation for which Liston is famous is the first public surgery performed with anaesthesia (ether) in Europe, in 1846. “This Yankee dodge beats mesmerism [the theory that all living things possess an invisible force that can heal] hollow,” he said at the time. Liston died of an aneurysm on December 7th, 1847, but his legacy lives on in popular culture as well as in the aptly named Liston amputation knife and his invention of bulldog forceps, as well as other medical innovations.

To learn more about these artifacts and more, visit our online collection catalogue by clicking the button below.

Shaelyn Ryan <br>(Collections Technician/Assistant 2022)
Shaelyn Ryan
(Collections Technician/Assistant 2022)

Shaelyn Ryan is a recent graduate of Queen’s University, having completed her Bachelor’s degree in History in 2021, and is returning to Queen’s in the fall to pursue a Master’s degree in History. Either as a Summer Student or Work-Study Student through Queen’s University, Shaelyn has helped catalogue and research many of the museum’s collection of artefacts as a Collections Technician (since 2018). 

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