We spent Sunday afternoon at the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret, which is located in the roof of St Thomas' Church tower in Southwark, near London Bridge. When St Thomas' Church was rebuilt in 1703, its large roof garret became the ideal place for the apothecary of St Thomas' Hospital to cure and store herbs; the apothecary had a laboratory, dispensing shop and office nearby in Clayton Square. In 1822, part of the herb garret was converted into an operating theatre for women. This is not as strange as it sounds, as the garret sat alongside the south wing of St Thomas' Hospital and was perfectly situated to take patients from the female surgical ward.
The operating theatre functioned from 1822 to 1862, and the women who went under the knife there did so without the benefit of anaesthesia or antiseptics. Patients had to make do with alcohol or opiates to dull the senses and a physician's stick to bite down upon, an example of which is on display in the museum (complete with teeth marks). And if the excrutiating pain of surgery wasn't enough to have to cope with, the women who underwent surgery there had to contend with a substantial audience. They don't call it an operating theatre for nothing!
The operating area is surrounded by a stepped gallery, from which students could watch whatever operation was taking place. The wooden plaque on the wall of the theatre tells us that the apprentices and dressers of the surgeon who was operating would stand around the wooden operating table, the dressers of other surgeons were to occupy the first three rows of the stepped gallery, and the operating surgeon's pupils situated themselves in the rows behind those.
St Thomas' surgeon, John Flint South, described the students who attended operations at the theatre as being '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.'
In the image above, you should just be able to make out bits of sawdust in the gaps between the floorboards. The space between the floor of the operating theatre and the ceiling of the church beneath it was packed with sawdust to prevent blood from dripping onto the heads of those below.
The museum houses a fascinating collection of herbs, potions, pickled specimens and medical instruments; I must confess that the obstetric instruments made my knees tremble a bit. The image below shows a selection of saws and knives, which came in all shapes and sizes depending on their desired purpose; there was even a small one for lopping off fingers in a jiffy. The wall-mounted cabinet on the left contains a bone saw made by Leseur, for use during amputations. In the absence of anaesthesia, surgeons worked very quickly; a limb could be amputated in less than a minute.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret is a must-see for anyone with even the remotest interest in medical history. Some things may make you wince, others may make you wish you hadn't eaten before visiting, but everywhere there are things to make you think. Surgery in the nineteenth century was brutal, bloody, smelly, and loud (wouldn't you scream if someone sawed your arm off?), and nowhere will bring this home to you as effectively as the Old Operating Theatre.
You can see the rest of the photographs I took during our visit to the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret by viewing my photograph album.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret is situated at 9a St Thomas Street, London, SE1 9RY, and it is open every day from 10:30am to 5:00pm. For more information about visiting this fascinating place, visit the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret web site.