What Was Surgery Like Before Anesthetic?

(Last Updated On: December 17, 2019)

What Was Surgery Like Before Anesthetic?

You probably wouldn’t want to have surgery while you’re still awake. Honestly, you probably wouldn’t want to have it while sleeping either, in no small part to like… Medical bills. But undergoing surgery while you’re still awake seems like a pretty bad time. It probably doesn’t surprise you, however, to learn that surgical procedures existed before we got our hands on anesthetic. That includes things like amputating limbs. So how did they do it? What was surgery like before anesthetic?

What Was Surgery Like Before Anesthetic?

The Fastest Surgery & Robert Liston

This little story is going to be all you need to understand what surgery was like back in the day. Plus, it was also the time a surgery not only didn’t save a life, but caused the collateral loss of two others. Three fatalities makes the mortality rate like 300%.

If you’re versed in strange internet stories, you may have heard about Robert Liston (1794-1847). He’s the guy we just alluded to, you know, the one who managed to kill three people in one surgery. In fairness, he’s kind of a surgery god, he only ever lost about 10% of his patients back when he practiced. If that still sounds like a lot, know that the average at that time hovered around 25%. 

Anyway, surgery was all about minimizing pain. And when Liston was practicing, the general consensus on a solution was to amputate limbs as fast as possible. Heck, Liston could do a leg amputation in 2.5 minutes. His record was something like 28 seconds for a limb amputation, earning him the moniker “The Fastest Knife in the West”.

We wonder how quick on the draw he was?

Liston was real cocky too. He’d frequently request onlookers to time him. 

The Infamous 300% Mortality Rate

The day Liston killed three people in one surgery, he was doing a leg amputation, but he was moving too quickly. During the procedure he accidentally cut off the fingers of his assistant. As he lifted his knife, he is said to have slashed the coattails of a spectator, killing him. 

While Liston’s assistant and patient didn’t die immediately, they did die later of an infection. We can’t really blame Liston all that much for this though. The whole deal regarding hospital hygiene was not very well understood, and surgeons would often wear dirty, blood stained clothes as “badges of honor.” Compare that to nowadays, where everything is sanitized, re-sanitized, and then probably sanitized again. At least that’s what they tell us–we’re not surgeons here in the office. We’d like to believe it.

We’ve made fun of poor Doctor Liston a lot today. But he is known for being one of the more influential surgeons of his time, and he still appears in some medical textbooks today–for better or for worse. 

Some debate that this story might be subject to some hyperbole over time, which probably shouldn’t be all that surprising. Liston was a real dude who was super fast at surgery though.

The Evolution of Anesthetic

Maybe you’re curious as to a quick summary of general anesthetic? After all, “cut away really fast” was generally the western approach. But what was going on in other parts of the world?

Why don’t you take a guess as to what the first sedative was? If you guessed “alcohol,” you are 100% correct, credited with use in Mesopotamia back when that existed. Opium was also known to have been used as early as 3,400 BC. 

China didn’t skimp out on surgery either. A mixture of herbs referred to as “mafeisan” (after layers of turning Chinese characters into the English alphabet) was used as early as 200 AD. There has been some controversy in regards to whether or not the stuff existed, but paywalled research papers tend to argue it’s more-likely-than-not that mafeisan was an anesthetic used. 

It wouldn’t be until 1804 that “general anesthetic” would be used. Hanaoka Seishu performed a partial mastectomy on a woman (due to breast cancer) on October 13, 1804. It was this procedure that is generally recognized as the first instance of general anesthetic in the modern sense. We’re not going to explain the chemistry behind it, but suffice to say that his mixture induced general anesthesia and paralysis. 

Think you know your surgeries? Test yourself here.



About Kyler 728 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.