Robert studied medicine at Edinburgh and London and was appointed as a surgeon in Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary in 1827. Having failed to obtain a professorial appointment in Edinburgh, he moved to London to continue his career. As a surgeon he was noted for his speed and strength and during his career in London he performed the first public major operation using anaesthetic.
In those days the operating theatre was a fearsome place, Usually the patient (who was most often 'dead-drunk' on Brandy) was held down by strong men and the surgeon was expected to work at a great speed. (Often even being timed by students with stopwatches). After hearing about the work of two American dentists (H. Wells and W.T.G. Morton) and an American scientist (C. Jackson) with the gas Nitrous Oxide and then Ether, Robert successfully amputated a man's leg under a complete anaesthetic entirely without pain. This took place in 1846 at University College Hospital in London, and it is reported that after the operation was over he cried to the other doctors present, "This Yankee dodge beats mesmerism hollow!" Although Chloroform was created and first used the following year, Ether continued to be used extensively alongside Chloroform for the next 50 years or so. By this time the list of available anaesthetics had grown considerably, providing a wide range of choices in the operating theatre.
During his distinguished career Robert gained a wide reputation throughout Europe and The United States as the most successful surgeon of his day. Throughout his career he pioneered many new surgical techniques, including the invention of the 'Liston splint' for use on the thigh. He also published many papers and journals on his work, many of which are stored in the National Library of Scotland. Robert was not only an expert in amputation and diseases of the bone; he also led the field in his knowledge of aneurysms (again publishing papers on the subject). It was somewhat ironic that in 1847, at the age of 53, he died of an aneurysm of the heart. Although his remains lie in the cemetery at Highgate Hill church in London, a memorial window is dedicated to him in the church here in Ecclesmachan (as part of the 1909 renovations). Click here to see a picture of this stain glass window.
There are also stories about Robert Liston leading body-snatching expeditions whilst he was a
student. On one occasion he and his colleagues are said to have stolen the corpse of a young sailor from the kirkyard
at Rosyth, almost from under the nose of his fiancee, who saw them rowing away after finding the
empty grave of her loved one.