The Old Operating Theatre, London

The Old Operating Theatre, London

If the walls at The Old Operating Theatre could talk, they would most likely scream in agony rather than strike up a conversation. Standing on the tiered steps which arch around the operating pit, the centre piece in one of London’s lesser known and quirkier museums, it only takes a pinch of imagination to visualise the grim realities of surgery in a time before anaesthetic. The operating table, no more than a slab of wood, stands on stripped floorboards beneath the vast glazed skylight which once provided the illumination by which the surgeons could slice. These men, often dressed in frock coats, went about their business ignorant as to the merits of antiseptic and without the benefits of effective painkillers or unconscious patients. Operations required speed, skill, a strong stomach and more than a little luck to ensure those beneath the blade survived. It’s safe to assume that during the early decades of the nineteenth century the wooden walls of the operating theatre witnessed enough gore and suffering to make even the Christmas special of ‘Casualty’ seem tame.

Getting to the operating theatre is a peculiar business as the entrance is to be found in St Thomas’s church, an eighteenth century baroque building whose dusty loft space, or garret, houses the museum. The narrow spiral staircase which leads upwards, seems ill suited to the care of the sick and the location is only explained when one learns that the church roof abuts the wards on the south wing of St Thomas’s hospital. When the church was rebuilt in the seventeenth century, the new building was constructed with a large ‘aisle barn’ garret which became home to the resident Apothecary at the neighbouring hospital. This seller and maker of medicine would have cultivated a herb garden and recent renovation work has found remains of dried opium in the rafters. Part of the museum recreates the workshop of the apothecary and the combined smells from exotic ingredients such as Frankincense, Santolina, Comfrey, Horsetail and Gum Arabic assault the nostrils as soon as you reach the top of the staircase. Signs detail the medicinal benefits of these raw materials although some remedies appear to have more in common with witchcraft than science. One of the least promising must be the recipe for Snailwater, which purports to offer a cure for venereal disease through a mixture concocted largely from crushed snails and earth worms.

The Old Operating Table

In 1822 part of the garret was converted into a purpose built operating theatre and a door fitted to connect with, what was then, the women’s surgical ward at St Thomas’s. Hitherto operations had been carried out on the ward, a highly distressing experience for those awaiting procedures. Indeed the patients admitted to hospital would have been among the poorest in society since the rich at this time preferred to pay for flesh to be cut in the comfort of their own homes.

The 1815 Apothecaries Act, which made it compulsory for all apprentices to attend public hospitals, ensured that hoards of students packed the viewing gallery to watch the surgeons at work. The museum displays a range of grisly illustrations depicting proceedings as well as contemporary operating guides packed full of graphic instructions. In particular the notes on amputations are sure to leave you grimacing. Even more unsettling are the display cases full of brutal surgical implements which radiate sufficient cruelty to feature in any horror movie. If gore is your thing, look out for the stomach flipping bone saws, trepanning drills (don’t ask), or the surgeons cane, complete with teeth marks from those patients who gnashed on the wood during the agony of an operation.

The Old Operating Theatre is an amazing medical time capsule, a bloody treat packed with insights into more painful times. While some of the larger London museums steal the limelight and tourists, a trek off the beaten track is highly recommended. You’re sure to leave thinking that the NHS really isn’t so bad after all.

How to get there

The museum is located on St Thomas Street, just behind London Bridge railway station.

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Related:a mini-museum just down the road at Guy's Hospital. Link here:-

My favourite detail is the bit about the syphilitics being guarded with a blunderbuss to prevent them spreading the clap any further around Southwark. Now that's what I call preventitive medicine.

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