The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things

GUEST POST: Mike Crump on Robert Liston and the Spectacle of Surgical Amputation

The first use of ether in dental surgery, 1846. Oil painting

Robert Liston was the first surgeon in England to use anaesthesia during surgical leg amputation. (Image: Wellcome Library, London. Oil painting depicting first use of ether during dental surgery, 1846).

Today’s post comes from Mike Crump, a brilliant young neuroscientist doing impressive brain research at Oxford (which is far too complicated for my humble art historical mind to fully understand, let alone articulate to you, so I won’t embarrass myself trying). When not discovering awesome brain things, Mike is interested in the dark corners of the history of science and medicine. He’s written a great article for the blog about a ridiculously interesting Victorian surgeon, Robert Liston, who was one part medical innovator, one part sensational showman. So read on for a bit of gruesome and fascinating history about a man who could amputate a leg in less than 30 seconds, and did so in a most spectacular style…

Robert Liston and the Spectacle of Surgical Amputation

Robert Liston, photographed ca 184 by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.

Robert Liston, photographed ca 184 by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. (Image: Wikimedia Commons).

“Gentlemen, this is no humbug;” the words of John Collins Warren in 1846 after the first public use of anaesthetic during surgery. This was hailed as the greatest gift of medicine, and with typical Victorian arrogance, described by the People’s Journal of London:

“Oh, what delight for every feeling heart to find the new year ushered in with the announcement of this noble discovery of the power to still the sense of pain, and veil the eye and memory from all the horrors of an operation. … WE HAVE CONQUERED PAIN.”

This discovery began earlier with a Scottish surgeon named Robert Liston, the first European surgeon to use ether during surgery. But this is not a discussion of anaesthesia. Liston was an excellent example of a pioneer and exhibitionist, which was perfect to satisfy the macabre curiosity of the era. Outspoken and argumentative, he was not well liked but was “the fastest knife in the West End.”

This, of course, was a time when the importance of hygiene and germs to infection were yet to be discovered and anaesthesia was not available until now. The mark of a good surgeon was instead measured by speed and skill. None were faster than Liston. He could remove a leg in 28 seconds. Liston grew in fame due to his finesse at amputating, but again this is not this is not why I find Liston so fascinating. It is the way he is reported to have operated I particularly enjoy. As Robert Gordon once commented about Liston:

“He was six foot two, and operated in a bottle-green coat with wellington boots. He sprung across the blood-stained boards upon his swooning, sweating, strapped-down patient like a duelist, calling, ‘Time me gentlemen, time me!’ to students craning with pocket watches from the iron-railinged galleries. Everyone swore that the first flash of his knife was followed so swiftly by the rasp of saw on bone that sight and sound seemed simultaneous. To free both hands, he would clasp the bloody knife between his teeth.”

Illustration of Liston surgiccal knives.

Illustration of Liston surgiccal knives. (Image: Dr Michael Echols, Antique Surgical Equipment Identification. Click image to go to source.)

The knives mentioned by Gordon are Liston’s own design, straight and exceedingly sharp (I have seen wonderful set in Oxford’s History of Science museum and Jack the Ripper was depicted with a set in From Hell).

He would  wait in the shadows of his operating rooms as they filled with spectators. Knives held in his teeth, he would emerge from the shadows, survey his patient and select his blade. It is this showmanship that I admire. His abrupt and abrasive personality gave him little room for being liked, but in his operating room he made his name with stunning flare and pioneering spirit. Whilst showmanship of this nature seems inappropriate today, it was an important part of what allowed medicine and science to advance in this golden age. It exhilarated and encouraged the curious nature of many; in much the same way we now use oodles of computer graphics to sell astronomy to the masses.

Robert Liston performs the first surgery with anaethesia in England, 1846.

Robert Liston performs the first surgery with anaethesia in England, 1846. (Image: University of Manitoba Library, click on image to go to source.)

The Continuing Showmanship of Science Today

With the ever increasing market for “pop science” one would expect a new approach, for the next generation. But essentially, the same characters are consistently thrust from academia to popular culture; except now they are shinier and more accessible. Figures like Carl Sagan and his incredible series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, (the most watched series on American public television at the time), and the more television friendly face of Brian Cox, have brought science to a new generation and a wider audience. People watch, and have watched before the time of Liston, because they were welcomed to a world made accessible by charismatic personalities, handsome faces and the whimsical speculations of Sagan. But it is always the personalities, and often a lack of humility, which make the most remarkable and memorable communications.

Gunter von Hagens with Rearing Horse with Rider 2000

Gunther von Hagens, German anatomist who invented a plastination technique for perserving and displaying body tissue. His controversial Body Worlds exhibitions, which display the manipulated cadavers of humans and animals, have been one of the most visited exhibitions in history. (Image: Body Worlds, click image to visit source.)

Cultures have changed and anatomy was until recently off-limits to pop culture. Enter  Gunther von Hagens and his hat. In an uncanny throwback to the age of Liston, von Hagens presents the subject of anatomy like an excited child. He gives the impression that if he could, those scalpels would be held in his teeth. His mixture of teaching style with strange art in his exhibition Body Worlds. It is often assumed that a solemn face is needed to somehow show respect, but the uninhibited passion that he shows for his subject matter is enough for me.

Perhaps to work so closely with cadavers for so long, you need to adopt this dissociated attitude. If this is the case, no wonder Liston, with his awake patients, had an “unorthodox” style. I wonder whether Liston and others throughout history, who are remembered as the person behind the discovery, would have had the influence they did had they had not been quite so unconventional, (Feynman, Newton and Tesla [see below] come to mind.) I can’t help but want what these guys had. Obviously utter brilliance, but also the stories which surround them, making them historic figures. Their eccentric way of operating set them apart from their discoveries and observations. We remember the names, stories and more because we get a beautiful insight into the person behind them.

From now on I’ll try to take some of Liston’s flare into my life and live with knives between my teeth.

A picture of Nikola Tesla sitting in his lab demonstrating how safe his new AC electricity was, in 1899.

A picture of Nikola Tesla sitting in his lab demonstrating how safe his new AC electricity was, in 1899. The photograph was faked in his competition with Edison. (Image: Dickenson V. Alley, Century Magazines, ca 1901. Via Wikimedia Commons).


Thank you so much to Mike for his insight into this ridiculously interesting nugget of history and its continued tradition in contemporary “pop science”! Keep your eyes out for the Crump name- he might just be the next spectacle-scientist of our generation. (***UPDATE: Mike has recently started his own ridiculously interesting blog on amazing science. Check it out here.**)


Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things:

Mr and Mrs Bese Cuppers and Leechers vintge medical leech ad


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