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On The Table With One of History’s Most Infamous Surgeons

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Imagine lying on a table in a old-school operating room. Faces stare down on you from the viewing galleries above and your leg throbs with pain from a broken bone and an infection just starting to set in.

The door opens and three men in blood-stiffened aprons walk in, carting a collection of needles, knives and saws. Two of them grab your shoulders and arms and pin you to the table. The third picks out one of the knives from the cart.

“Time me, gentlemen,” he calls out to the gathered spectators. “Time me.”

The man grabs your leg and begins to cut just below the knee. He continues to hold onto your leg as one of his lackeys gets a tourniquet around it. To free his cutting hand, he clasps the knife, covered in your blood, in his teeth and picks up a saw.

He cuts back and forth through the bone, drops the severed part of the leg into a bucket filled with sawdust, and sews you up, to the applause of the men sitting in the wings. They’ve timed the whole bloody procedure—from first incision to clipping the loose threads on the sutures—at just two and a half minutes.

It may sound like a scene from Saw or Hostel, but this is actually just a pretty typical procedure in a Victorian Era surgical ward.* And for all the imaginary pain you just went through, you’re really one of the luckiest patients around. The madman who just flew through your amputation with reckless abandon was Dr. Robert Liston, one of the finest surgeons of the time.

Quick Cuts

Richard Gordon, a surgeon and medical historian, calls Liston the “fastest knife in the West End.” His style may have seemed careless, but in the age before anesthesia, speed was essential to minimizing the patient’s pain and improving their odds of surviving surgery. Slower surgeons sometimes had pain-wracked and panicked patients wrestle free from their assistants and flee from the operating room, leaving a trail of blood behind them. Only about one of every 10 of Liston’s patients died on his operating table at London’s University College Hospital. The surgeons at nearby St. Bartholomew's, meanwhile, lost about one in every four.

Liston’s quick hands were so sought after that patients sometimes had to camp out in his waiting room for days waiting for their turn to see him. Liston tried to see every last one of these patients, no matter their condition. He especially loved treating those cases that his fellow surgeons had dismissed as beyond help, which earned him a reputation among colleagues as showy.

Occasionally, Liston’s speed and showmanship were a hindrance to his operations. Once, he took a patient’s testicles off along with the leg that was being amputated. His most famous (and possibly apocryphal) mishap was the operation where he was moving so fast that he took off a surgical assistant’s fingers as he cut through a leg and, while switching instruments, slashed a spectator’s coat. The patient and the assistant both died from infections of their wounds, and the spectator was so scared that he’d been stabbed that he died of shock. The fiasco is said to be the only known surgery in history with a 300 percent mortality rate.

Life Beyond Surgery

Liston had more going for him than just a quick and (mostly) steady slice, though. He was a highly-regarded surgical instructor and prolific inventor. Some of his creations, like the “Liston splint” and  “bulldog” locking forceps, are still around today. He also published two medical texts, The Elements of Surgery and Practical Surgery.

Towards the end of his career, Liston made medical history and performed a surgery that made his nimble hands obsolete in Britain. From that point on, pain would no longer be a hurdle to successful surgery, and speed wouldn’t be the surgeon’s greatest asset.

In 1846, Liston received a patient named Frederick Churchill, whose right knee had been causing him terrible problems for years. None of the treatments he’d been given before had worked, and now the only option was amputation. The day of the surgery, Liston walked into the operating room and, instead of grabbing a knife and asking his audience to time him, he pulled out a jar. Ether, American dentists and doctors had recently demonstrated, could be used as a surgical anesthetic. “We are going to try a Yankee dodge today, gentlemen,” Liston told the crowd, “for making men insensible.”

Liston’s colleague, Dr. William Squire, administered the anesthesia. He held a rubber tube to Churchill's mouth so he could inhale the ether, and after a few minutes, he was out. Squire placed a handkerchief laced with more of the stuff over Churchill’s face to keep him that way, and then Liston began the operation.

A mere 25 seconds later, the amputation was complete. Churchill roused a few minutes later and reportedly asked when the operation was going to begin, to the amusement of the audience.

Further use of ether in Europe’s operating rooms revealed its drawbacks. It irritated surgeons’ lungs, caused vomiting and other side effects in patients and, in some windowless rooms where surgery was performed by gaslight, ignited and caused fires. Anesthetics would continue to improve and become more common in medicine, but Liston wouldn’t get to see much of their progress. He died in a sailing accident less than a year after Churchill’s surgery, still the fastest knife London had ever known.

*Of course, you’re not a time traveller, and this is a hypothetical operation, but the details of the scene—from the medical students timing the amputation, to Liston holding the scalpel in his mouth—are all recorded in and borrowed from one or another of Liston’s actual surgeries.

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science
Why a Howling Wind Sounds So Spooky, According to Science
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Halloween is swiftly approaching, meaning you'll likely soon hear creepy soundtracks—replete with screams, clanking chains, and howling winds—blaring from haunted houses and home displays. While the sound of human suffering is frightful for obvious reasons, what is it, exactly, about a brisk fall gust that sends shivers up our spines? In horror movie scenes and ghost stories, these spooky gales are always presented as blowing through dead trees. Do bare branches actually make the natural wailing noises louder, or is this detail added simply for atmospheric purposes?

As the SciShow's Hank Green explains in the video below, wind howls because it curves around obstacles like trees or buildings. When fast-moving air goes around, say, a tree, it splits up as it whips past, before coming back together on the other side. Due to factors such as natural randomness, air speed, and the tree's surface, one side's wind is going to be slightly stronger when the two currents rejoin, pushing the other side's gust out of the way. The two continue to interact back-and-forth in what could be likened to an invisible wrestling match, as high-pressure airwaves and whirlpools mix together and vibrate the air. If the wind is fast enough, this phenomenon will produce the eerie noise we've all come to recognize in horror films.

Leafy trees "will absorb some of the vibrations in the air and dull the sound, but without leaves—like if it's the middle of the winter or the entire forest is dead—the howling will travel a lot farther," Green explains. That's why a dead forest on a windy night sounds so much like the undead.

Learn more by watching SciShow's video below.

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Space
SpaceX's Landing Blooper Reel Shows That Even Rocket Scientists Make Mistakes
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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches.
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On March 30, 2017, SpaceX did something no space program had done before: They relaunched an orbital class rocket from Earth that had successfully achieved lift-off just a year earlier. It wasn't the first time Elon Musk's company broke new ground: In December 2015, it nailed the landing on a reusable rocket—the first time that had been done—and five months later landed a rocket on a droneship in the middle of the ocean, which was also unprecedented. These feats marked significant moments in the history of space travel, but they were just a few of the steps in the long, messy journey to achieve them. In SpaceX's new blooper reel, spotted by Ars Technica, you can see just some of the many failures the company has had along the way.

The video demonstrates that failure is an important part of the scientific process. Of course when the science you're working in deals with launching and landing rockets, failure can be a lot more dramatic than it is in a lab. SpaceX has filmed their rockets blowing up in the air, disintegrating in the ocean, and smashing against landing pads, often because of something small like a radar glitch or lack of propellant.

While explosions—or "rapid unscheduled disassemblies," as the video calls them—are never ideal, some are preferable to others. The Falcon 9 explosion that shook buildings for miles last year, for instance, ended up destroying the $200 million Facebook satellite onboard. But even costly hiccups such as that one are important to future successes. As Musk once said, "If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough."

You can watch the fiery compilation below.

[h/t Ars Technica]

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