The Surgery With a 300% Mortality Rate

Medicine before anesthetics were invented

Image for post
Image for post
Depiction of Robert Liston performing an amputation in front of a crowd of spectators during surgery in the 1800s (Source Wikimedia Commons)

Being treated before 1846 was not only risky but also extremely painful as anesthesia didn’t exist, so all surgeries that were performed up until that point were on conscious patients. This also brought an extra risk as the patient could faint from the excruciating pain experienced, meaning an unstable pulse that could affect the success of the surgery.

This meant that competent surgeons were required in the medical field and especially precise surgeons that could perform most of their surgeries in under ten minutes. It is imperative to mention that most of the surgeries which were performed at the time usually consist of the amputation of a limb due to gangrene or other simple procedures. No organ transplants or procedures of such nature were done at the time.

The quickest surgeon in the 19th century

Image for post
Image for post
Robert Liston (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

the early 1800s was a period where the fundations of modern medicine were established. A surgeon should normally take his time whilst being swift, but it was difficult to concentrate with five other assistants holding down a patient that kept screaming from the excruciating pain of being cut alive with no anesthesia. Even with their great techniques, there were still many basic surgical and hygienic factors that were not respected, justifying why many patients ended up in the morgue.

In 1820, Robert Liston was the most famous surgeon in Britain. He specialized in amputations and got so good at it that he was able to amputate a leg from the first incision to the last stitch in minutes. In that period of time, you needed guts and a strong stomach to be a surgeon, as sawing a limb of a conscious patient wasn’t for the faint-hearted. In theory, the quicker the surgery, the less time for something to go bad and also less suffering for the patient, however, when you rush, you can also fail big time, and that is what happened with this legendary surgery.

A show with three deaths

Most major surgeries that were performed at the time could have been witnessed by anyone who wanted to participate. It was actually quite common for most surgeries to take part in a hall so that more people could witness. Spectators would even enjoy beverages during these surgeries to probably help them get through watching a whole gruesome surgery. This particular surgery with a 300% mortality rate took place at London's University College Hospital.

Most patients preferred to have Liston perform their surgery as his record was one death every ten surgeries which was amazing compared to the general one death to every four surgeries that most surgeons had. This was another amputation surgery of a leg that had developed gangrene. In order to stop the infection from spreading, the leg had to be cut.

The patient was ready for his suffering, the assistants was holding the patient down so he would not move an inch and Liston was preparing his knives and saws. He knew that once he started cutting, he would not be able to stop as this meant a higher risk of infection, as well as putting the patient through even more pain. As he was getting ready for the first incision he shouted at the crowd spectating the surgery:

“Time me, Gentlemen!”

As Liston started cutting away at the patient’s leg, he cut a bit more than what he meant to by also cutting a finger from one of his assistants that were holding down the patient’s leg. This meant that cross-contamination of blood took place, which at the time, people were not aware of. However, Liston had to attend to the screaming patient, so he had no time to pause, he finished amputating the leg in an amazing time of only two minutes and thirty seconds. But during these two minutes, he also took another person down.

Image for post
Image for post
Depiction of amputation of a leg during the early 1800s (Source: The Detailed History)

There was a senior surgeon witnessing the surgery next to Liston and as he was moving swiftly he accidentally cut him, contaminating his body with gangrene. Two days after the surgery both the patient and the assistant died. A few days after the senior surgeon who was only witnessing the surgery, also died. Never in history has there been a record of having more than one (the patient) person dying in a surgery.

Many people blamed it on Liston’s carelessness for wanting to be the quickest that lead to this event, but at the same time, we need to consider his care for his patients as the quicker he was able to perform the surgeries, the less suffering for the patients had to experience. Dr. Richard Gordon who is a medical historian supports Liston’s reputation as he had an impeccable record for the early 1800s medical standards. We need to also take into consideration that Liston was also an inventor, who helped the evolution of more complex medical surgeries later in his career.

Image for post
Image for post

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of…

Sign up for Manuscript of the Month!

By History of Yesterday

In order for you to never miss a story, you can subscribe to this monthly newsletter that will keep you up to date with the latest and greatest articles published each week.  Take a look

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Andrei Tapalaga ✒️

Written by

Avid Writer with invaluable knowledge in Business Studies, History and Psychology. “You make your own life” atapalaga97@gmail.com

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

Andrei Tapalaga ✒️

Written by

Avid Writer with invaluable knowledge in Business Studies, History and Psychology. “You make your own life” atapalaga97@gmail.com

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store