The Old Operating Theatre Museum,
St Thomas Street, London, UK
London’s Best Places to Visit
This fascinating museum was my absolute Favorite Place to visit in London. I spent hours listening to what happened in the operating theatre before anaesthetics and studying the primitive instruments used on patients.
And reading about the terror women must have felt when wheeled into a theatre surrounded by tier after tier of eager medical students, all male of course, looking down upon her.
The Old Operating Theatre is in the 300 year old herb garrett of St Thomas’s Church and is the only surviving 19th century operating theatre, as it was originally connected to St Thomas’s Hospital but later closed up and forgotten. Today the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett are accessed through a narrow door on St Thomas’s street and up steep winding steps.
Looking at the instruments and seeing the general level of hygiene from those days, or rather lack of hygiene, is rather terrifying. Thanks goodness I wasn’t one of those poor female patients being operated on. Limbs and breast were sawed off. Enormous amounts of blood were lost.
Blood was collected by letting it run into a dish on the floor at the end of the table. Shudder!
The wards of the South Wing of St. Thomas’s Hospital were built around St. Thomas’s Church. In 1815 the Apothecary’s Act, which required apprentice apothecaries to attend at public hospitals, meant that hordes of students poured in to watch operations.
The museum has a wooden operating table and observation stands, from which spectators witnessed surgery performed without anaesthesia or antiseptics. The rest of the oak beamed garret was used for the storage and curing of medicinal herbs.
Placing the Theatre in the Herb Garret of the Church separated it from the ward and gave a small amount of sound proofing as well as giving students a separate entrance. It was at the same level as the women’s surgical ward so patients could be easily transported to the theatre instead of being operated on in the wards.
The Theatre was built with a large skylight to maximise the light from above, so although it wasn’t heated or ventilated it was a compact area for surgeons to demonstrate to students. There was no anaesthetics so surgeons needed to be fast and could perform an amputation in under a minute After 1847, ether or chloroform could be used but The Old Operating Theatre had closed down before antiseptic surgery was invented.
The majority of cases were for amputations or superficial complaints as, without antiseptic conditions, it was too dangerous to carry out internal operations.