December 9th: Robert Liston
For your typical adult, Christmas always seems to fly by. This is probably a consequence of the ever increasing build-up to Christmas, which the commercial sector currently starts advertising some time around the summer solstice. With a build up that lasts for at least 2 meteorological seasons for something that lasts about 3 days (not counting the desperate Bacchanal that is New Years Eve), it's no wonder that Christmas seems to go by in a mad rush.
But despite the ludicrous build up time, there still seems to be a frantic sense of rush around Christmas. There have been months to get everything done, but still the shops are clogged on Christmas eve with people suffering a sudden attack of remembering they have family, , and whoever is in charge of hosting the family on the day itself usually ends up as a twitching mass of stress and tension, red enough to rival the jolly fat man himself (either Santa or some bloated sleazy uncle who keeps turning up despite nobody knowing who he's related to, take your pick).
Couple this with the tendency of some children to tear the wrapping off presents so manically that you wonder if they've got secret a habit of snorting crack out of shiny boxes, and there's a palpable sense of franticness and speed around the festive season. Everyone has a lot to do, and it seemingly against the clock.
When it comes to science, the man who personifies this is Robert Liston, fastest knife in the West End (I didn't make that up, that's an actual nickname)
The link will give you all you need to know about Liston, but just in case you prefer to finish this first, Liston was a surgeon. Everyone respects a surgeon, right? The ability to actually delve inside a living human being, repair a living, biological system that's not working to a potentially fatal extent, and put everything back together so the patient lives through the whole thing; what more noble, honourable profession is there?
Liston was nothing like that.
It's important to remember, for all that some people might not like it now (I'm looking at you , homeopaths!), medicine used to be a hell of a lot worse in the 1800s, and surgery in particular. The 3 main developments that made surgery something people survived with some regularity were anaesthetics, analgesics and antiseptics, meaning people stopped dying due to the horrific pain during surgery, the horrific pain after surgery, or infections caused by the surgery (this would have been before germs were even properly discovered and recognised as something to avoid, so hospitals were rarely cleaned; why would they be?) Blood loss is also a problem, but they've got that essentially under control too these days.
Liston operated (in every sense of the word) before any of these things were taken into account during surgery. The only thing that mattered was speed. Medical knowledge wasn't as advanced as it is now, so it was a simple two-step system; lop it off, quick as you can. Job done.
Liston was the best at this. He brought the energy and enthusiasm of a hyperactive child opening presents on Christmas day to the operating theatre. And you know how sometimes those kids will get so carried away they actually end up damaging the present as well, sometimes irreparably? Liston did that too.
Which is a nice way of saying he killed a lot of people with his enthusiasm. And you may be thinking 'surely with no anaesthetics or hygiene, pretty much everyone undergoing surgery died back then?' And you'd be right, but Liston went the extra mile and is one of the only surgeons to have killed bystanders.
This is a guy who accidentally cut off a man's testicles during one surgery (I'm assuming that wasn't what the operation was actually for), but his most famous case was when he amputated a leg in 2 and half minutes and killed 3 people. In these days of the 1800's, surgery was a popular form of entertainment, hence the term operating 'theatre'. People would gather round and just watch. It's like Saw 3D, only with no popcorn, so it probably smelled slightly better.
During this one amputation, Liston cut off the patients leg, but the patient died from gangrene anyway. He also cut off the fingers of an assistant who was restraining him. The assistant also died from gangrene. At the end of the amputation, he somehow got carried away and slashed through a spectators coat, and they promptly died of shock from the fright. When people say 'natural medicine', this is the sort of thing they never think of.
Imagine a child so carried away when opening a present they break 3 of their siblings gifts, take someone's eye out, stamp on the dog and set fire to the tree. Now give that child a saw and you've essentially got Robert Liston.
Just to put the fast pace of the Christmas period into some sort of perspective.