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Liston, Robert (1794-1847) (DNB00)


LISTON, ROBERT (1794–1847), surgeon, born on 28 Oct. 1794 in the manse of Ecclesmachan, Linlithgowshire, was eldest child of Henry Liston [q. v.], the minister of the parish. Liston spent a short time at a school in Abercorn, but was chiefly educated by his father. In 1808 he entered the university of Edinburgh, and in his second session obtained a prize for Latin prose composition. In 1810 he became assistant to Dr. John Barclay (1758–1826) [q. v.], a well-known extra-academical lecturer upon anatomy and physiology. Liston continued with Barclay until 1815, acting during the latter part of the time as his senior assistant and prosecutor. Dr. Barclay was an enthusiastic teacher, and from him Liston derived his love for anatomy. In 1814 he became ‘surgeon's clerk,’ or, as it is now called, ‘house-surgeon,’ at the Royal Infirmary, first to George Bell and afterwards to Dr. Gillespie; he held the office for two years.

He came to London in 1816, and put himself under Sir William Blizard and Mr. Thomas Blizard at the London Hospital. In the same year he was admitted a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and began to attend Abernethy's lectures at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. He afterwards returned to Edinburgh, where he taught anatomy in conjunction with Syme. In 1818 he took the fellowship of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons after reading a thesis upon ‘Strictures of the Urethra and some of their Consequences.’

He worked in Edinburgh from 1818 to 1828, gaining a great reputation as a teacher of anatomy and as an operating surgeon. During the whole 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 that institution. In 1827, however, he was appointed one of the surgeons to the Royal Infirmary, apparently by the exercise of private influence, and in the following year he was made the operating surgeon. He failed to be selected professor of clinical surgery in 1833 in succession to Russell, when Syme, his younger rival and former colleague, was chosen to fill the post, and this failure probably determined the rest of his career.

In 1834 Liston acceded to the invitation of the newly founded hospital attached to the London University to become one of its surgeons. He accordingly left Edinburgh and came to London, where in 1835 he also accepted the office of professor of clinical surgery in the university of London (University College). On the death of Sir Anthony Carlisle in 1840 Liston became a member of the council of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and in 1846 he was appointed to the board of examiners. On 13 May 1841 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He died of aneurism of the arch of the aorta on 7 Dec. 1847, at his house in Clifford Street (subsequently occupied by Sir William Bowman), in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and was buried in Highgate cemetery.

Liston's claim to remembrance is based upon the marvellous dexterity with which he used the surgeon's knife, and upon the profound knowledge of anatomy which enabled him to operate successfully in cases from which other surgeons shrank. Living at a time immediately antecedent to the introduction of anæsthetics, 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 sawing 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 that he could amputate through a thigh with only the single assistant who held the limb. He excelled too in cutting for stone, but his name is perhaps best known to the present generation of surgeons in connection with the ‘Liston splint,’ still used in the treatment of dislocation of the thigh.

Liston was not a scientific surgeon, neither was he a good speaker, nor was he very clear as a writer. His manner towards his inferiors was often unnecessarily rough, and many stories are told of his rudeness and of the retorts to which he thereby laid himself open. He had many sterling qualities, however, and was devoted to outdoor sports in general, and to yachting in particular.

A bust of Liston, executed in 1850 by Thomas Campbell, exists in the anatomical museum of University College, London, a replica of which was placed in the board room of the Royal Infirmary; and there are two pictures of him in the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, one left to the college by Sir William Fergusson, the other by Clarkson Stanfield, representing Liston as a young man in a yachting dress.

Liston's chief works are: 1. ‘The Elements of Surgery,’ in three parts, published in Edinburgh and London in 1831 and 1832, of which a second edition in one volume was published in 1840. 2. ‘Practical Surgery,’ published in London, 1837; 2nd edit. 1838; 3rd edit. 1840; 4th edit. 1846. He wrote many pamphlets and reports of cases which are scattered about in the medical periodicals of his time.

[Times, 20 Dec. 1847; Some Old Families, a contribution to the genealogical history of Scotland, by H. B. McCall, 1890; information kindly supplied by Miss Liston, Dr. James Dunsmore, and Mr. C. W. Cathcart.]

D’A. P.