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Significant Scots
Robert Liston


LISTON, ROBERT, F.R.S.—This great medical teacher and practitioner was born on the 28th of October, 1794, and was son of the Rev. Henry Liston, minister of Ecclesmachen, Linlithgowshire. After having finished his course of classical and professional education, he, at the termination of the latter, practised as ordinary house-surgeon in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. It speaks much for his professional attainments at this period—for he was only at the age of twenty-one—that he perceived the defects that prevailed in the management of that institution; and not a little for his courage as well as disinterestedness, that he set himself in earnest to reform them. Like most of those daring young geniuses, however, who look too exclusively to the good end in view, and are satisfied with the rectitude of their own motives, he pursued his plan of reform with such ardour as to waken the wrath of the directors, who were little disposed to be taught that they were in the wrong by such a juvenile instructor. Liston, however, persevered, while his growing reputation coming to his aid, at length gave his representations such weight, that, when his connection with the Infirmary terminated, a full acknowledgement of the important services he had rendered was entered upon its records. In 1817, Mr. Liston became a graduate of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons of Edinburgh and London, and commenced practice in the former city, where his reputation as a surgical operator grew yearly, until he attained that pre-eminence which left him without a rival. For this department, indeed, he was admirably fitted by nature; for independently of his acquired skill, he possessed a decision of will, firmness of nerve, strength of muscle, and quickness of eye, which qualified him for successful operations, where many of his gentler or less prompt and active brethren would have failed. But with all this, he was neither a rash experimenter nor merciless practitioner: on the contrary, he not only performed boldly and skilfully what was necessary, but stopped short where danger was to be apprehended. His manner, also, combined such gentleness with firmness, as secured the confidence and esteem of his patients. In addition to his practice, he delivered lectures, first on anatomy, and afterwards on surgery, between the years 1822 and 1834, which were highly valued and numerously attended.

Having thus won for himself a high reputation both as practitioner and instructor, it was natural that Mr. Liston should anticipate those professional honours which are so often bestowed upon candidates of greatly inferior pretensions. His hopes were directed to a professorship of surgery in the university of Edinburgh, which no one in Scotland was better (if as well) qualified to fill, but as the wished for vacancy did not occur, or was won by a more favoured competitor, he formed a professorship for himself, with the world for his auditory, by publishing, in 1833, his ‘Principles of Surgery,’ a work which he afterwards repeatedly revised, and which went through several editions. Subsequently, many of his lectures on various subjects, and especially on lithotomy, were published in the "Lancet " Of the merits of these writings, which were recognized at once by the whole medical profession, and which have spread his fame though every medical school in Europe and America, it would now be superfluous to speak, their scientific correctness and thorough practical character, as well as the improvements which they have introduced into practical surgery, are sufficient evidences of their worth. Disappointed in his hopes of Edinburgh, and having fully tested his own powers, Dr. Liston was now desirous of a wider field, which was opened to him in 1834, by his being appointed surgeon to the North London Hospital. He left the Scottish capital in the November of that year, and so fully was his value now appreciated in Edinburgh, that before his departure a public dinner was given to him, at which the Lord Provost presided, while the addresses delivered on the occasion by the most eminent of the medical and surgical professions, who attended, made eloquent acknowledgment of his high talents and eminent services, as well as regret at their transference to another sphere of action.

In London the fame of Dr. Liston became so distinguished, that his private practice annually increased, and the most difficult and critical operations were reserved for his experienced hand. After having filled for some time the office of surgeon to the North London Hospital, he was appointed professor of clinical surgery in University College; and in 1840, in addition to that situation, which he raised to honour and distinction, he was appointed one of the examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons. In this way, notwithstanding a certain bluntness of manner which he had preserved from the beginning, his private worth, as well as professional knowledge, procured him not only the highest distinction in his own country, but a world-wide reputation, which as yet has suffered no abatement. Here, however, his career was unexpectedly closed when it was at the brightest. After enjoying almost uninterrupted good health till within a year of his death, he was attacked by a malady, the causes of which his medical advisers could not ascertain, but which was found, on a post mortem examination, to have been occasioned by aneurism in the aorta. He died in Clifford Street, London, on the 7th of December, 1847, at the age of fifty-three.


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