Old Operating Theatre

NB this post contains some gory details about 18th Century surgical proceedures.

The Old Operating Theatre is sneakily tucked behind London Bridge Station, on St Thomas’s Street. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a few years, but have always never quite made it. That is until this weekend.

Old Operating Theatre

As soon as you step up the tiny, and precarious spiral stair case-entrance you are transported back to the 18th and 19th centuries. To a world where no one knew what germs were, or how infection spread, where a doctor would walk in off the street and perform surgery without even washing his hands, where women were operated on but did not perform operations and where medications and tonics were created from herbs and snails rather than from chemical reactions.

The Museum is made of up of two distinct rooms, the Herb Garret and the Operating Theatre. It is located in the roof space of St Thomas’s Church, the only obvious reminder of the original site of St Thomas’ Hospital (now on Lambeth Palace Road), which is thought to have existed in this area from before the 13th Century. As as aside (for the train geeks out there) the hospital moved as a result of the development of the Charing Cross Railway viaduct from London Bridge Station.

The herb garret was the laboratory of the hospital’s apothecary, the place where he would have dried and cured his herbs for the hospital and for his shop, located further down the street. It is said that when the garret was being restored 4 poppies (an important medicinal plant) were found in the rafters. Today, as well as herbs and their varying properties there is also a vast array of the type of medical instruments used throughout the 19th Century on display; some far more intrusive and eye watering than others, such as the lithotrite.

The Operating Theatre formed part of the female wing of the hospital, and as such only women were operated on in this theatre, and they were only operated on by men. The purpose of the theatre (besides being a place for operations) was as a place of study for students of surgery to watch and learn from master surgeons (the Hunter Brothers may even have performed some operations here!). The Operating Theatre was in use at a time before there were anaesthetics or any concept of antiseptic or aseptic surgery. Blood strewn and pain piercing, this room must have been a dichotomy of suffering and discovery when in use.

During my visit I was lucky enough to watch a talk and demonstration about the surgical methods of the time, and in particular how amputations would have been conducted using nothing more than a set of differing sized saws. I learnt some of the more gruesome details about the work of the ‘Dressers‘ who would not only dress the patients wounds at the end of the operation but would also be on hand to remove the affected limb, or pull down the excess skin and tissues in order to expose the bone.

Besides all the gory details a name was also mentioned that particularly intrigued me. James Miranda Barry. A taster for what I think will be my next post.

If you fancy seeing some more pictures from my visit, you can check out my Flickr set here.