Ep 37 – Redeeming Robert Liston or: The One with Rachel from Hollywood Crime Scene

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As a consumer of macabre and grotesque media, you the listener may believe yourself to be already acquainted with the story of Robert Liston.  Thousands of websites, podcasts, and even peer reviewed academic journals and publications have recounted the fantastic story of an operation performed by Robert Liston which resulted in the deaths of not only his patient, but also of his surgical assistant and a bystander.  The story goes that in his efforts to expedite as much as possible the process of amputating his patient’s leg, that Liston accidentally removed 2 fingers from his assistant, and whilst flourishing his knife about also nicked the coat of an observer.  The patient died on the operating table, the man whose coat was slashed died of a heart attack, and the assistant died some time later after the remaining stumps of his fingers became gangrenous.

This story has been recounted hundreds of times, each telling inevitably concluding with the clever summation that this was the only surgery in recorded history with a 300% mortality rate.  

If this is the story that you are hoping to hear, you might soon be disappointed.  That disappointment stemming from the fact the aforementioned and often repeated story of surgical buffoonery never happened. 

Robert Liston was however an extremely interesting character and one whose true story is filled not only with blood and questionable ethics in those agonizing years before anesthesia, but also with accomplishment and achievement.

So, how did everyone except Where is the Line? Get this man’s story so terribly wrong?  How do I know that everyone except Where is the Line? Is wrong?  Who really was Robert Liston and what might it have been like to go under his knife during the age of agony?   Find out on this episode of Where is the Line? 


“Amputation at the Hip-Joint.” The Medico-Chirurgical Review, and Journal of Medical Science, vol. IV, no. 16, 1824, p. 947+. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, link.gale.com/apps/doc/LYJLLF166052888/GDCS?u=tusc49521&sid=GDCS&xid=df88d76c. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.

Coltart, D J. “Surgery between Hunter and Lister.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 65, no. 6, June 1972, pp. 556–560, 10.1177/003591577206500625. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.

“Cystitis.” The Medico-Chirurgical Review, and Journal of Medical Science, vol. III, no. 11, 1822, p. 681. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, link.gale.com/apps/doc/KOODKU897723323/GDCS?u=tusc49521&sid=GDCS&xid=a4b15ab5. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.

“DEATH OF ROBERT LISTON, ESQ., F.R.S.”, London Lancet. January 1, 1848. 52—53. http://libdata.lib.ua.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=h9j&A N=53724929&site=eds-live&scope=site&ppid=divp60&lpid=divl18

Flemming, P. “Robert Liston, the first Professor of Clinical Surgery at UCH”. University College Hospital Magazine 1926; 11: 176–85.

Gordon, Richard. Great Medical Disasters. London, House Of Stratus, 2001.

“In a Clinical Lecture Delivered at the University Hospital by Mr. Liston, the Lecturer Draws the Attention of His Pupils to Narrowing of the Anal Passage, a Complaint Incident to the Extremities of All Mucous Canals.” The Medico-Chirurgical Review, and Journal of Medical Science, no. XLIV, 4, 1835, p. 490+. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, link.gale.com/apps/doc/KXHMAR043441888/GDCS?u=tusc49521&sid=GDCS&xid=d7f087f6. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.

Liston, Robert, and the London Lancet. “Selected Articles.” Medical Magazine, vol. III, no. XXIII, 1835, p. [721]+. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, link.gale.com/apps/doc/FBFEHB504716677/GDCS?u=tusc49521&sid=GDCS&xid=e8fc596e. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.

Liston, Robert, et al. Lectures on the Operations of Surgery : And on Diseases and Accidents Requiring Operations. Philadelphia, Lea And Blanchard, 1846.

—. “PRACTICAL SURGERY.” The Lancet, vol. 45, no. 1119, Feb. 1845, pp. 145–148, 10.1016/s0140-6736(02)64643-4. Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.

Liston, Robert. “Lecture Delivered at the North London Hospital.” Register and Library of Medical and Chirurgical Science, p. 225+. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, link.gale.com/apps/doc/AQVDTK654587142/GDCS?u=tusc49521&sid=GDCS&xid=7b8e5d16. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.

“Lithotomy.” The Medico-Chirurgical Review, and Journal of Medical Science, vol. III, VII, no. 5, 21, 1825, p. 247+. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, link.gale.com/apps/doc/PEHARU155138680/GDCS?u=tusc49521&sid=GDCS&xid=a78e0f27. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.

MacHardy, F. N. “The Double-Flap and Circular Amputations Contrasted; Being an Abstract of a First Prize Essay at the University of Edinburgh. By F. N. MacHardy, A. M. and M. D., Surgeon. London, Simpkin, and Co., 1841.” The Medico-Chirurgical Review, and Journal of Medical Science, no. LXXI, 31, 87, October 1, 1841-JANUARY 1, 1842, p. 172+. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, link.gale.com/apps/doc/BOXHXT871301369/GDCS?u=tusc49521&sid=GDCS&xid=472e3ed2. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.

Magee, R. (1998), AMPUTATION THROUGH THE AGES: THE OLDEST MAJOR SURGICAL OPERATION. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, 68: 675-678. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1445-2197.1998.tb04843.x

Magee, Reginald. “Surgery in the Pre-Anaesthetic Era: The Life and Work of Robert Liston.” Health and History, vol. 2, no. 1, 2000, p. 121, 10.2307/40111377. Accessed 1 Oct. 2020.

Mian, A., Shoja, M.M., Watanabe, K. et al. Robert Liston (1794–1847): surgical anatomist and resurrectionist with an interest in hydrocephalus. Childs Nerv Syst 29, 1–4 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00381-012-1994-3

Moore, Levi. “The Brief and Strange History of Mesmerism and Surgery – Hektoen International.” Hekint.org, 24 Dec. 2018, hekint.org/2018/12/24/the-brief-and-strange-history-of-mesmerism-and-surgery/. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.

MR. LISTON. (1847). The Athenaeum, (1051), 1301-1302. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/historical-periodicals/mr-liston/docview/8991718/se-2?accountid=14472

“Robert Liston, Esq.” Illustrated London News, 18 Dec. 1847, p. 404. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, link.gale.com/apps/doc/HN3100018364/ILN?u=tusc49521&sid=ILN&xid=64ba2c90. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.

“Surgery & Emotion | Blog.” Surgeryandemotion.com, 2019, http://www.surgeryandemotion.com/blog/view/robert-liston-the-fastest-knife-in-the-west-end-part-1-historical-myth-making. Accessed 9 Mar. 2021.

“The Man Who Made Surgery Safe.” Illustrated London News, 1 Apr. 1967, p. 18+. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, link.gale.com/apps/doc/HN3100505461/ILN?u=tusc49521&sid=ILN&xid=57fde2c4. Accessed 1 Mar. 2021.

The Morning Chronicle (London, Greater London, England) · Tue, Dec 14, 1847 · Page 5

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