Robert Liston was a competent surgeon who contributed significantly to medicine as a science. Then he had the misfortune to have one seriously bad day, and became a legend in the medical community.

A Scottish surgeon who practiced all over Britain, he earned respect for his skill in amputations. Liston practiced in the early 1800s, before anesthesia was popular. Cutting and sawing on a conscious, shrieking patient took strong nerves and a strong stomach. The shorter the operation, the lesser the suffering of the patient and the greater the chance that the patient would survive. Liston could amputate a leg in two minutes. This was impressive, but it came with impressive drawbacks.

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Keep in mind, the patient spent the entire procedure fighting as hard as they could, the multiple medical "assistants" whose job it was to hold the screaming patient down. In the confusion, doctors had been known to miss, amputating more than they needed to. As the legend goes, one day Liston amputated much more than he needed to. While amputating the patient's leg at the hip, Liston accidentally sliced through the fingers of one of his assistants. That would have been bad enough, but it proved disastrous when the patient's stump turned gangrenous. The saw must have been contaminated, because the assistant became ill and infected, too. Within a few days, both the patient and the assistant died.

However, this single surgery took a victim even earlier. The procedure was being observed by an elderly doctor in a dress coat with long tails. In the confusion, Liston cut through the man's coat. He wasn't cut, but because blood was spurting around, the old gentleman didn't know that. Feeling the tug, and seeing himself covered in blood, the man collapsed on the floor, had a heart attack, and died.

Liston, therefore, had performed a surgery with a 300% mortality rate.

Image: Wellcome Trust.

[Source: Dr Mutter's Marvels.]