Surgeons across the world owe debt to Scotland’s pioneering 19th-century body ‘butchers’

Surgeons across the world owe debt to Scotland’s pioneering 19th-century body ‘butchers’

SURGEONS across the world owe a debt to Scotland’s pioneering 19th- century body “butchers”.

Medical historian Dr Lindsey Fitzharris has highlighted how our surgeons were prepared to push the boundaries in her new hit book The Butchering Art.

Rory Kinnear’s character in BBC show Quacks was based on Robert Liston

Take Robert Liston, from Ecclesmachan in West Lothian. He was dubbed “The Fastest Knife in the West”.

The 6ft 2in hulk could amputate a leg in less than 30 seconds, by using his left hand as a tourniquet and hacking away with his right.

Lindsey, 35, said: “He was known as a showman — he liked to come to the operating theatre and famously say, “Time me, gentlemen.” Then you could hear the ripple of pocket watches opening.”

But his speed often had dire consequences. He once accidentally sliced off a patient’s testicle along with his leg.

On another occasion he killed three people in one operation — the patient, his own assistant who caught gangrene after Liston’s whirring blade sliced off three fingers and a spectator who was slashed when Liston turned round quickly.

But Liston — who was the subject of BBC show Quacks, starring Rory Kinnear — helped change the course of surgery in a London operating theatre.

Lindsey explained: “Liston did perform the first operation under ether in 1846. He didn’t discover it, as it came from America. He called it the Yankee Dodge because he thought it was American quackery.

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“He was rightly sceptical but he did the operation and it did work as an anaesthetic.”

Although it was a turning point, doctors didn’t understand germs, so they used dirty implements from one procedure to the next. But that day with Liston inspired one young spectator — 17-year-old Joseph Lister.

Lindsey said: “Scotland seemed receptive to scientific medicine at that time, whereas London wasn’t. It was Joseph Lister’s great fortune that he travelled up there.

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“There was a lot more scientific surgery going on in Scotland in the 19th century so, as a result, Lister came up with his idea — it was one of the first times a scientific principle was applied to medical practice.”

The patient was 11-year-old James Greenlees, who had been knocked down in August 1865. Lindsay said: “Once you had an accident, it took a lot of time to get treated because first you had to be transported to the hospital.


“By the time he ended up in Lister’s care, the wound was covered in dirt. Lister had read Louis Pasteur’s germ theory and was starting to put together that germs cause infections.

“She used carbolic acid to clean the wound and the boy ended up walking out of the hospital a few weeks later with both legs intact.”

Lister later married the daughter of fellow surgeon Professor James Syme. Prof Syme had famously treated Robert Penman, who had a bony, fibrous tumour in his jaw.

Lindsey said: “Syme spent 24 minutes slicing at Penman’s jawbone, throwing pieces of bone and slices of the tumour into a bucket. This was done before anaesthetic was invented.”

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Syme later took Lister under his wing, giving him the platform to make his ground-breaking discovery at Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

US author Lindsey has been blown away by the reaction to her book. She added: “I originally wanted to do it on Robert Liston alone, as he’s such a character. But I realised he didn’t push things on.

“What is amazing is that I begin with the first op under ether with Liston and teenage Lister is in the audience witnessing it. I could not have written better movie script.”

Lindsey will host the Scottish launch of her book at Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh on November 30 — see