Medical History: The Fastest Surgeon (Ever?)

While reading Disease by Mary Dobson (review to come shortly), an interesting surgeon jumps to the fore.

In the era before anaesthesia, the success and survival rates of operations were said to be practically directly proportional to the speed with which it was performed. Bare in mind that in those days, patients were subdued by alcohol or opiates and often forcefully restrained.

Dr Robert Liston, a confrontational but brilliant Scottish surgeon, is said to have walked into the OR proclaiming, “Time me, Gentlemen, time me!”

Brilliant as he was, performing the first operation in Europe under modern anaesthesia, he is know for his less successful – and laughable – surgeries.

In one surgery, he is said to have amputated a leg in less than two and a half minutes – but in the process also the patient’s testicles.

In another, he argued with his houseman about a pulsating mass in a young child’s neck, saying, “Whoever heard of an aneurysm in one so young?” and swiftly sliced through the mass. Turns out it was an aneurysm.

And finally, the tale that had me in fits of laughter: Liston performed an amputation with such speed that he amputated his assistant’s fingers, who later died of iatrogenic gangrene – as did the patient. During the same operation he sliced the coattails of an observing surgeon, who got such a fright at the possibility of injury that he allegedly instantly dropped dead.

Thus Dr Liston is said to be the only surgeon in history to perform surgery with a 300% fatality rate.


  1. That is very interesting – never had thought about that. The faster the better. How did they prevent infections?

    1. I thought it was super interesting too! Being fast was part of infection prevention: less time open to the external environment = less exposure to pathogens (theoretically I suppose). The rest of infection control until the advent of antibiotics was probably pretty much salt washes and lots of interception.

  2. Interesting post! Thank heavens science and medicine has moved on from those times. I don’t think I would fancy going under the knife with him, you’d never know what would happen :O

    1. Indeed! There is another tale of women with breast cancer who had to decide whether they would be super-brave and undergo a mastectomy without anaesthesia or whether they would have to die of their cancer… Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong era, but when I hear such stories I change my mind.

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