The Old Operating Theatre Museum

For an eye opening insight into the medical world of yesteryear, there are few better museums than this South London gem. Peter Gray reports.

The Old Operating Theatre Museum

The Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret is the oldest surviving surgical theatre in Europe. It is housed in the wonderfully atmospheric attic of an eighteenth-century church in the grounds of old St Thomas’ Hospital. The location adds an eerie charm to the facility.

The dwelling originally served as a storehouse for medicinal herbs but in the early 19th century an operating theatre was added to the building.

Most of the patients who came to the operating theatre were poor as the rich were more likely to be treated at home. They reluctantly put up with the rowdy students who came to witness the operations as being treated at the Old Operating Theatre meant they were likely to be treated by one of the country’s top surgeons, rather than inexperienced beginner.

A St Thomas surgeon, John Flint South, has left us a description of the operating day.

“The first two rows … were occupied by the other dressers, and behind a second partition stood the pupils, packed like herrings in a barrel, but not so quiet, as those behind them were continually pressing on those before and were continually struggling to relieve themselves of it, and had not infrequently to be got out exhausted. There was also a continual calling out of “Heads, Heads” to those about the table whose heads interfered with the sightseers”.

Part of the fun of visiting the museum is in actually getting there with the only access to the theatre provided by a narrow staircase. However, once you’ve finished clambering to the top, you’ll discover an astonishing glimpse into a bygone era.

The Old Operating Theatre Museum showcases the way medicine used to be conducted before the advent of anaesthetics and antiseptics. It was an age when the threat of death on the operating table was never far away and the leech was still the preferred treatment for many ailments. If this all makes the Old Operating Theatre Museum seem even more removed from the hi tech world of 21st century medicine, it conversely makes the museum even more of a must see.

There is a display cases full of equipment used for amputations with steel dissection chains, a bone chisel and an amputation blade, a display on nursing equipment with a forbidding looking nipple protector and a display cabinet full of gunshot bullets used to demonstrate the treatment of gunshot wounds.

It’s the theatre that people really come to see however and it certainly doesn’t dissapoint. There is something incredibly eery about the place but I suppose that is only to be expected given its history. It’s smaller than I imagined with room for no more than 100 but the room is well designed with the steeply rising steps ensuring that everyone in attendance had a good view.

A cabinet in the theatre displays several interesting documents of the type that would have been found in the period in which the operating theatre was in operation. One folder details a number of typical cases. The first page depicts a case of purpura syphilitica in a sailor.

The theatre also contains a not entirely reassuring painting of an operation in the theatre. The patient is screaming as he held down by seven men. Some sort of implement seems to be attached to his leg. The crowd meanwhile look either bored, amused or expectant.

The teaching of anatomy was a primary purpose of the operating theatre. Finding bodies to operate on was always a problem however. This was made somewhat easier after the passing of the anatomy act in 1832. Any bodies that weren’t claimed by a relative within 48 hours of death could be dissected by the hospital surgeons. In 1836, of the 1332 patients who died in St Thomas’, 134 were reported as “unclaimed”.

The poet John Keats famously studied to become a surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital. Keats enrolled to the then United Guys and St Thomas’s Hospitals in the 1st of October 1815.

Within a month, Keats had risen to become a Dresser (the equivalent of a junior house surgeon today). However his interest in surgery was already beginning to fade and by the spring of 1817 he was already relating to friends how he had conducted his last operation.

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