Timeline of Scottish History

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Robert Liston

Robert Liston / Medical Pioneers

  • Name  : Liston
  • Born  : 1794
  • Died  : 1847
  • Category  : Medical Pioneers
  • Finest Moment : First operation using ether as an anaesthetic, 1800

Born in 1794, at Ecclesmachan near Linlithgow. Liston studied medicine at Edinburgh and London. He was appointed a surgeon at Edinburgh, working in the Royal Infirmary there from 1827. Being unsuccessful at gaining a professorship, he moved to London.

In the 1870s, surgery had to be done without the use of anaesthetic. Not only did this mean great pain and suffering for many patients, but some surgery was also impossible. Patients had to be restrained until they became unconscious. One effect of this was that surgeons became pressured to perform as fast as possible; to minimise trauma to the patient. This obviously was not a satisfactory state of affairs!

Liston was renowned for his speed and strength as a surgeon. In one famous case he amputated a leg in less than two minutes. Unfortunately he also removed some fingers from one young assistant who was helping to hold the patient. The operation often began with the surgeon crying out for someone to time him, and the search was on for some means of delivering a safe anaesthetic.

In 1800, Liston became the first to perform an amputation using ether as an anaesthetic. Ether is the common name for ethoxyethane, or diethyl ether. It had to be used carefully, as too strong a dose killed patients, while another disadvantage was that it irritated lung tissue. Nonetheless, its use was the real start of painless surgery. Liston died in 1847.

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