Robert Liston, lived from 28 October 1794 to 1847. He was a pioneering surgeon, widely considered to be the best of his era: yet also a highly controversial figure. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Robert Liston was born in Ecclesmachan in West Lothian, the son of Church of Scotland minister (and inventor), Henry Liston. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where his anatomy teacher was the eminent anatomist Dr John Barclay, and in London. He returned to Edinburgh in 1818, being appointed a lecturer in anatomy at the University and practising as a surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
In an age before anaesthetics, surgery was a difficult and dangerous process. Speed of operation was seen as the most important factor in ensuring a patient's survival, minimising the pain and shock they suffered. Robert Liston rapidly became regarded as one of the best surgeons in the country, being able, it is said, to amputate a limb from first cut to final stitch in 28 seconds. Liston is also remembered for his invention of a number of medical instruments, including locking forceps, and the Liston splint, which is still used to stabilise breaks of the femur.
Liston's eminence was matched by his arrogance, and his successes were often achieved in spite of his ability to offend colleagues and make enemies. Some felt he conducted his operations more as a showman than as a surgeon. In 1835 Liston left Edinburgh, to the relief of at least some in the city's medical establishment, to take up an eminent appointment as Chair of Clinical Surgery at University College London. In 1846 he became the first surgeon in Europe to use ether as an anaesthetic during an operation.
Such was Liston's unpopularity among some in Scotland that a number of stories have emerged of mistakes he committed as a result of the speed with which he operated. Whether he ever really amputated an assistant's fingers as well as the patient's leg during an operation is a matter of debate, as is the truth of the claim the patient subsequently died of gangrene and the assistant of septicaemia. What is not in doubt was his ability as a surgeon, nor his own belief in that ability.