…The West End of London that is. The man who for years carried the infamous distinction of being capable of the fastest amputations in London was a Scottish doctor by the name of Robert Liston. And, in the anesthesia-absent dark ages of the middle nineteenth century, being able to neatly and (relatively) cleanly sever a limb was a definite marketing advantage for a doctor.
In the time before sanitary hospitals, antibiotics, and any kind of anesthesia other than possibly several stiff belts of whisky and maybe an actual belt to bite on, working with speed was critical. Patients were often writhing in agony and fighting the doctor every step of the way. Often, doctors were attended by assistants, whose only job was to keep the poor sod with the gamey leg from scarpering off. Kind of like when the heavy kids sat on your chest to hold you down in gym class, while the bully put gum in your hair. Except you usually finished gym class with the same number of limbs you started with. Unless you went to particularly tough parochial boarding school, I guess.
Doctor Liston was a skilled surgeon and was responsible for a number of medical innovations of his time, including authoring several medical textbooks, inventing locking forceps, and even a type of leg splint still in use today. But the writin’ and inventin’ ain’t the things Doc Liston is renowned for. If he was, this would be titled “Most Book Writing-est Doctor in the West”, but he’s not and it isn’t. No, Doc Liston was renowned for his speed. According to medical historian Dr. Richard Gordon, Doctor Liston was capable of severing a limb in about two and a half MINUTES.
In fact, according to Gordon, Liston had several surgeries notable for their speed. Some of the notable ones being: the time Liston removed a 46 lb. scrotal sac tumor (ed. note: one assumes this took a lot of balls. We’re not sorry.) and the time Liston was arguing with a colleague whether a red patch on a boy’s neck was a simple abscess or a more deadly aneurysm of the carotid artery and Liston advocated that there was no way it could be a aneurysm, and killed him when he tried to lance it. (ed. note: The artery remains in the University College Hospital pathology museum to this day – specimen # 1256. Stop by and ask to see it. Tell them we sent you).
However, there is an apocryphal story of the time old Doc Liston managed a 300% mortality rate on a single surgical amputation. Allegedly, once Liston amputated a patient’s leg in less than three minutes. The patient eventually succumbed to gangrene (ed. note: Strike one). In his enthusiasm to work quickly, Liston accidentally severed the fingers of his assistant; unfortunately the (unnamed) assistant developed a case of greasy stump, a euphemism for gangrene that I just made up (ed. note: Strike two). And finally, a (curiously also unnamed) bystander who happened to wander too close to the surgical table had his coattails severed, not something usually considered fatal. However, the bystander felt the pull of the knife and saw the copious blood, and dropped stone dead of a heart-attack (ed. note: Steeeee-rike three!). Three deaths, one operation, presumably very little waiting.
Nobody ever remembers that Richard Liston was the first surgeon in Britain to use chemical anesthesia (ether) or any of the other innovations contributed to modern medicine. Nope. But kill three people in one go, and you’re a legend forever.