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Bloomsbury Project

Bloomsbury and the Bloomsbury Project

Bloomsbury People

What is the Bloomsbury Project?

The Leverhulme-funded UCL Bloomsbury Project was established to investigate 19th-century Bloomsbury’s development from swampy rubbish-dump to centre of intellectual life

Led by Professor Rosemary Ashton, with Dr Deborah Colville as Researcher, the Project has traced the origins, Bloomsbury locations, and reforming significance of hundreds of progressive and innovative institutions

Many of the extensive archival resources relating to these institutions have also been identified and examined by the Project, and Bloomsbury’s developing streets and squares have been mapped and described

This website is a gateway to the information gathered and edited by Project members during the Project’s lifetime, 1 October 2007–30 April 2011, with the co-operation of Bloomsbury’s institutions, societies, and local residents

Robert Liston (1794–1847)

a summary of his Bloomsbury connections

He was one of the brilliant generation of Scots who studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in the first two decades of the nineteenth century

Like his older colleagues Charles Bell and Anthony Todd Thomson, and his contemporaries Granville Sharp Pattison and John Gordon Smith, Liston was appointed Professor at the University of London (later University College London), though unlike them, he was not among the very first Professors to be appointed when the University opened in 1828

He was appointed surgeon to the University’s newly opened North London Hospital (later University College Hospital) in 1834, and Professor of Clinical Surgery at the University in 1835

Before coming to London, Liston taught anatomy in Edinburgh, where he gained a great reputation as an operating surgeon, but where he became involved in bitter rivalries with his colleagues, including James Syme, who succeeded him at what was by now called University College London on Liston’s death in 1847

Syme was so put off by the “dispeace” he found in the medical faculty at University College that he returned to the more familiar rivalries and jealousies of Edinburgh after only a few months, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

It was in University College Hospital that Liston pioneered the use of anaesthetics in England, in an operation to amputate the thigh of a Harley Street butler, Frederick Churchill, under ether on 21 December 1846

A man of six feet two inches and extremely strong, Liston had already become famous for the speed and decisiveness with which he could amputate a limb before the discovery of anaesthetics

On this memorable occasion in December 1846 he asked the invited audience to time him; he took twenty-five seconds to saw through the thigh (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Liston was remembered in an article in the University College Gazette in 1901 by Sir Henry Thompson, who had been a medical student at University College London and subsequently Professor of Clinical Surgery there

Thompson remembered him as tall and athletic, wearing a blue frock coat, “free, open and genial” and popular with his students (his colleagues often found him frank to the point of rudeness), and a great sportsman (University College Gazette, vol. II, June 1901, UCL Special Collections)

“He was an excellent sportsman, and enjoyed early morning rides about the north suburbs of London. He kept his yacht – I forget lying where – but was in the habit of making a long day’s sail whenever he could on Sundays” (University College Gazette, vol. II, June 1901, UCL Special Collections)

An example of his forthright dealings with colleagues is a letter of 1835 to Robert Carswell, Professor of Morbid Anatomy at University College London

In this letter, Liston refused to hand over “the calculi removed by operation from patients in the North London Hospital”, objected to “a smartish observation made by you as to my performance of the duties of an Hospital Surgeon”, and declined to “give up my claim to the calculi (which by the way are not ‘part of the body nor specimens of Disease Structure’) a claim well earned & which is recognised in every Hospital, with the regulations of which I am acquainted” (Robert Liston to Robert Carswell, 31 October 1835, College Correspondence no. 4144, UCL Special Collections)

For more general information about Robert Liston, see his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

This page last modified 7 April, 2011 by Deborah Colville


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