On this day in history : 21st December 1846 – Scottish surgeon Robert Liston uses ether as an anaesthetic for the first time in a British operation – to perform the amputation of a leg….

Robert Liston, 1847 – Portrait by Samuel John Stump – Public domain

Liston had become the first Professor of Clinical Surgery at the University College Hospital in London in 1835…. He was known as ‘the fastest knife in the West End’, as he could amputate a leg in two and a half minutes….

At 6 foot 2 inches he was an imposing figure…. He would remove his frock coat and operate in his Wellington boots…. After his patient had been strapped down he would call out to his students “Time me gentlemen, time me”…. Then with a whirling of his knife and saw he would cut through the flesh and bone of the offending limb…. He once, in addition to his patient’s leg, severed two fingers belonging to his assistant…. Both patient and assistant later died of sepsis…. Another time he amputated a leg but inadvertently cut off his patient’s testicles as well….

This may all appear rather barbaric – but at the time speed was of the essence, to reduce the period of intense pain and to improve the chances of survival…. Between 1835 and 1840 Liston carried out 66 amputations and only 10 of his patients actually died…. (Oh and the occasional assistant of course)….

Photograph of Robert Liston c.1845 – Public domain

On the 21st of December 1846 Frederick Churchill was the first patient in Europe to have surgery under anaesthetic…. The first operation using ether had been carried out on the 16th of October 1846 by Surgeon William T.G. Morton in Massachusetts…. When performing the amputation of Frederick Churchill’s leg Liston commented “This Yankee dodge beats mesmerism hollow”….

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