research: Robert Liston and Liston knife

Have been working on the Museum project.

After long hours spent on investigation into Victorian surgery I stumbled upon a fascinating character. His name is Dr. Robert Liston , a Scottish surgeon noted for his skill and speed in an era prior to anaesthetics, when speed made a difference in terms of pain and survival. They called him the fastest knife in the West End. He could amputate a leg in 21⁄2 minutes.

He was “a man of strong character and ethics”, which was the source of some of his confrontational style.

“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.”

Although Richard Gordon’s 1983 book pays tribute to other aspects of Liston’s character and legacy, it is his description of some of Liston’s most famous cases which has primarily made its way into what is known of Liston in popular culture.

Liston’s most famous case
Amputated the leg in under 21⁄2 minutes (the patient died afterwards in the ward from hospital gangrene; they usually did in those pre-Listerian days). He amputated in addition the fingers of his young assistant (who died afterwards in the ward from hospital gangrene). He also slashed through the coat tails of a distinguished surgical spectator, who was so terrified that the knife had pierced his vitals he dropped dead from fright. That was the only operation in history with a 300 percent mortality.

Second most famous case
Amputated the leg in 21⁄2 minutes, but in his enthusiasm the patient’s testicles as well.

Wow, such a character, couldn’t miss a chance to use it.

According to the brief we had to choose an object from the museum – thank you Dr.Liston, that was easy after I found you 🙂

The Liston knife is a type of knife used in surgical amputation.

And you know what? A Liston knife was the weapon of choice of the infamous Jack the Ripper, a London serial killer, in 1888. It is thought Jack the Ripper may have had some surgical and anatomical knowledge due to the way he mutilated his female victims. Alan Moore in his novel “From Hell” made this knife even more famous.


Perfect! Now I have an object of choice, a character with a strong personality and a theme for the story – it will be “who’s the fastest knife of all?”.

This entry was posted in research and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *