The Biggest Screwups That Changed History
The Biggest Screwups That Changed History

The Biggest Screwups That Changed History

Khalid Elhassan - April 29, 2023

The Biggest Screwups That Changed History
Dr. Robert Liston. Hill & Adamson

Speed Kills – In the Operating Room

Bad doctors and medical screw-ups are all too common. Indeed, thanks to negligent or outright incompetent medical professionals, there is a thriving field in the legal profession that focuses solely on medical malpractice. Fortunately for Dr. Robert Liston (1794 – 1847) of London, he practiced in an era when, and in a country where, medical malpractice litigation was not as big as it is today in the US. If not, medical malpractice lawyers would have had a field day suing him for that one time he managed to kill three people during a single surgery – two of whom were not even his patients.

Dr. Liston was a surgeon known for his speed. In the days before the use of anesthetics had become as widespread as today, an ability to operate speedily was a decided plus. It meant that patients spent less time enduring excruciating pain as a surgeon cut into them. It also increased the odds of survival, lessening the odds of patients going into shock, as well as reducing the time in which their vitals were exposed to germs and other vectors of infection.

The Biggest Screwups That Changed History
Dr. Robert Liston. Art UK

History’s Deadliest Surgery?

Dr. Liston was famous for his ability to complete operations in a matter of seconds, and to amputate a leg in just two and a half minutes. Unsurprisingly, chances for a mistake were pretty high. Dr. Liston played up his reputation for speedy surgery for all it was worth. Surgeries back then were spectator events, and observers watched what was going on from galleries that surrounded operating rooms. As he brandished his cutting tools, Dr. Liston would often shout to the audience “time me, gentlemen!It became his catchphrase.

During one surgery to amputate a leg, Dr. Liston accidently severed the fingers off the hand of an assistant who was holding down the patient’s leg. Liston continued with the job, and took off the patient’s leg. Both patient and assistant got gangrene, and died within a few days. In his frenzied slicing, Dr. Liston also accidentally cut an elderly spectator’s coat. The old man was not hurt, but he was splattered with blood from patient’s amputated leg and the medical assistant’s severed fingers. Thinking that he had been wounded, the elderly spectator panicked, had a heart attack, and died.

The Biggest Screwups That Changed History
The death of Francois Vatel. Pinterest

The Mistake that Made a Master Chef Kill Himself

French master chef Francois Vatel was put in charge of a grand banquet for 2,000 people, scheduled at the Chateau de-Chantilly for April 25th, 1671, in honor of King Louis XIV. The banquet was scheduled on short notice, and Vatel, who had only fifteen days to prepare, got stressed out by a series of minor mishaps. During a preliminary dinner a few days before the banquet, there were more guests than expected, and two out of twenty six tables went without roast. That minor mistake mortified Vatel, and he wept that he had lost honor and could not bear the shame. Reassurances that the dinner had gone great, and that the king was pleased, did not comfort Vatel, who continued to obsess about the roast-less tables. Later that night, a grand display of fireworks flopped because fog and low clouds descended, which depressed Vatel even further.

Early the following morning, April 24th, one day before the banquet, Vatel encountered a supplier bringing two loads of fish, and asked him if that was all. The supplier, unaware that Vatel was referring to all fish from all suppliers, not just himself, replied that it was. That was the final straw for a frazzled Vatel, who had hardly slept for two weeks. He broke down, crying “I won’t survive this insult. My honor and reputation are at stake!” Unable to endure what he was sure would be a humiliation when the royal banquet turned into a flop, Vatel took a sword and ran himself through. As it turned out, it did not take long before the misunderstanding resolved itself, as fish from other suppliers began to arrive soon thereafter. As the master chef lay dying of his wound, wagon loads of fish trundled their way into the Chateau de-Chantilly.

The Biggest Screwups That Changed History
Cuban exiles train in preparation for the Bay of Pigs invasion. Imgur

A Time Zone Mistake Doomed an Invasion

In everyday life for most of us, a failure to correctly set the time, like when daylight savings come around or roll away, can lead to minor inconveniences. Things along the lines of showing up for work an hour late or an hour early. However, a failure to correctly set the time when there is fighting to do, can lead to disaster. Such was the case in the spring of 1961, as American-trained Cuban exiles readied themselves to overthrow Fidel Castro.

The Cuban exiles were convinced – or more accurately, they convinced themselves – that when they landed in Cuba, they would be supported by the US Air Force, with the US Marines right behind them. The aerial cover actually promised the Cuban exiles by the CIA was support from 16 WWII era B-26 medium bombers, flying out of bases in Nicaragua. However, that number was halved to 8 bombers when the new president, JFK, insisted that the operation be kept minimal.

The Biggest Screwups That Changed History
Cuban exiles captured in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Pinterest

The Farcical Collapse of an Invasion

Cuban exiles landed on the Bay of Pigs on April 17th, 1961, but the 8 B-26s turned out to be woefully inadequate support. Pinned down, with their backs to the sea, no means of retreat, and no chance to advance into Cuba’s interior, the invaders were cut to pieces. The invasion had failed, but on the following day, JFK made a final gesture. With Castro’s forces now on full alert, any followup strikes by the B-26s would require fighter protection.

So the president authorized 6 fighter jets from the aircraft carrier USS Essex to fly cover over the Bay of Pigs for an hour on April 18th, to protect the B-26s as they carried out another strike. However, the invasion, which had already gone from failure to fiasco, was destined to conclude with a farce. The rendezvous between the carrier jets and the B-26s was missed. The Pentagon had failed to factor in the one hour time zone difference between the bombers’ base in Nicaragua and Cuba.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American College of Surgeons – Time Me, Gentlemen! The Bravado and Bravery of Robert Liston

Atlantic, The, October 24th, 2012 – ‘Time Me Gentlemen’: The Fastest Surgeon of the 19th Century

Business Insider, June 16th, 2017 – Spinach Doesn’t Have As Much of a Key Nutrient Needed in Your Blood as You Might Think

Cracked – 12 Tiny Things That Changed the Course of History

Daily Beast – How a Fart Killed 10,000 People

Daily Mail, July 3rd, 2013 – Sorry Popeye, Spinach DOESN’T Make Your Muscles Big: Expert Reveals Sailor’s Love of the Food Was Due to a Misplaced Decimal Point

Dawson, Jim – Who Cut the Cheese? A Cultural History of the Fart (1998)

Ere Now – Some Mistakes Have Turned Out Well: Math Error, 1492

Extreme Tech – Tech Wrecks: Lessons From Some of the Biggest Hardware Screwups

Folk Texts – Breaking Wind: Legendary Farts

Grunge – The Fart That Caused 10,000 Deaths

Guardian, The, August 29th, 2007 – Key That Could Have Saved the Titanic Goes Up for Auction

Healio – Penicillin: An Accidental Discovery Changed the Course of Medicine

History Collection – 20 Mistakes the Axis Powers Made in World War II

History News Network – Failures of the Presidents: JFK’s Bay of Pigs Disaster

How Stuff Works – 5 Reasons Why the Bay of Pigs Invasion Failed

IEEE Spectrum – Columbus’s Geographical Miscalculations: Columbus Based his ‘Enterprise of the Indies’ on Three Massive Metrological Errors

Motley Fool – How Coke Helped Create Pepsi, and Other Historic Market Moments

National Security Agency – Mokusatsu: One Word, Two Lessons

Nescafe – What is Decaf Coffee?

New York Times, November 2nd, 2015 – Gunter Schabowski, Whose Gaffe Helped Burst the Berlin Wall, Dies at 86

Pangeanic – The Worst Translation Mistake in History

Searching in History – Tragic Death of Francois Vatel

Telegraph, The, August 29th, 2007 – Key That Could Have Saved the Titanic

Time Magazine, September 28th, 2015 – How Being a Slob Helped Alexander Fleming Discover Penicillin

UK Tea & Infusions Association – The Humble Tea Bag