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E000397 - Liston, Robert (1794 - 1847)
Liston, Robert (1794 - 1847)
Royal College of Surgeons of England
RCS: E000397
London : Royal College of Surgeons of England
Publication Date:
Obituary for Liston, Robert (1794 - 1847), Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
Plarr's Lives of the Fellows
Full Name:
Liston, Robert
Date of Birth:
28 October 1794
Place of Birth:
Ecclesmachan, Linlithgowshire, Scotland
Date of Death:
7 December 1847
Place of Death:
MRCS December 6th 1818

FRCS December 11th 1843, one of the original 300 Fellows

FRCS Edin 1818

FRS 1841
Born on Oct 28th, 1794, in the Manse of Ecclesmachan, Linlithgowshire, the eldest child of Henry Liston (1771-1836) by his wife Margaret, daughter of David Ireland, Town Clerk of Culross. Henry Liston was the inventor of the ‘Euharmonic’ organ designed to give the diatonic scales in perfect order, and had a natural bias for mechanics; his younger son, David, became Professor of Oriental Languages at Edinburgh. Robert Liston spent a short time at a school in Abercorn, but was chiefly educated by his father. He entered the University of Edinburgh in 1808 and gained a prize for Latin prose composition in his second session: in 1810 he became assistant to Dr John Barclay (1758-1826), the Extra-academic Lecturer on Anatomy and Physiology, and continued as his prosector and assistant until 1815. In 1814 he became ‘Surgeon's Clerk’ or House Surgeon at the Royal Infirmary, first to George Bell, afterwards to Dr Gillespie, holding office for two years. He came to London in 1816, putting himself under Sir William Blizard and Thomas Blizard at the London Hospital, and attending the lectures of John Abernethy at St Bartholomew's Hospital. He then returned to Edinburgh and taught anatomy in conjunction with James Syme. In 1818 he was admitted a Fellow of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons on his thesis – “Strictures of the Urethra and Some of their Consequences”. He worked in Edinburgh from 1818-1828, gaining a great reputation as a teacher of anatomy and as an operating surgeon. During some years of this period he was constantly engaged in quarrels on professional subjects with the authorities of the Royal Infirmary, which culminated in 1822 in his expulsion from the institution. He was, however, appointed one of the Surgeons in 1827, apparently by the exercise of private influence, and in 1828 he was made the Operating Surgeon. He failed in his application for the Professorship of Clinical Surgery in 1833, when James Syme (qv), his younger rival and former colleague, was preferred before him. In 1834 Liston accepted an invitation to become Surgeon to the newly founded hospital attached to the University of London (now University College). He accordingly left Edinburgh and settled in London, where in 1835 he was elected Lecturer on Clinical Surgery in the University of London. On the death of Sir Anthony Carlisle in 1840 Liston became a Member of the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons, and in 1846 he was chosen a Member of the Court of Examiners. He was also Consulting Surgeon to the Hospital for Diseases of the Chest. He died on Dec 7th, 1847, of aneurysm of the arch of the aorta, at his house, 5 Clifford Street – subsequently occupied by Sir William Bowman (qv). Liston was not a scientific surgeon, neither was he a good speaker nor a clear writer. His claim to remembrance is based upon the marvellous dexterity with which he used the surgeon's knife, upon his profound knowledge of anatomy, and upon the boldness which enabled him to operate successfully on cases from which other surgeons shrank. Living at a time immediately antecedent to the introduction of anaesthetics, he appears to have attained to a dexterity in the use of cutting instruments which had probably never been equalled and which is unlikely to be surpassed. When chloroform was unknown it was of the utmost importance that surgical operations should be performed as rapidly as possible. Of Liston it is told that when he amputated, the gleam of his knife was followed so instantaneously by the sound of the bone being sawn as to make the two actions appear almost simultaneous, and yet he perfected the method of amputating by flaps. At the same time his physical strength was so great – and he stood over six feet in height – that he could amputate through the thigh with only the single assistant who held the limb. He excelled, too, in cutting for stone, but his name is best known by ‘Liston's straight splint’, which has now been replaced by better methods of treating fractured thighs. The first successful operation under ether by a surgeon in a London hospital was performed by him at University College on Dec 21st, 1846. Liston, like many contemporary surgeons, was rough and outspoken to rudeness, but he had many sterling qualities and was devoted to outdoor sports, especially to yachting. A bust by Thomas Campbell (1790-1858) was presented to the Royal College of Surgeons of England on Dec 23rd, 1851, by a ‘Committee of Gentlemen’. An oil painting by A Bagg was engraved by W O Geller and published on Jan 25th, 1847. Publications:- *The Elements of Surgery*, in three parts, Edinburgh and London, 1831 and 1832; 2nd ed. in one volume, 1840. *Practical Surgery*, London, 1837; 2nd ed., 1838; 3rd ed., 1840; 4th ed., 1846.
*Dict. Nat. Biog.*, sub nomine et auct. ibi cit

“The First Operation under Ether in Europe, the Story of Three Days,” is well told by Dr F W Cock, FSA, in the *University College Magazine*, 1911, i, 127. The article has as a frontispiece a chalk drawing of Robert Liston at the age of 30, which is in the possession of Mr Raymond Johnson, FRCS

*Brit. Jour. Surg.*, 1918-19, vi, 333, with portrait
Copyright (c) The Royal College of Surgeons of England
Plarr's Lives of the Fellows
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