The Old Operating Theatre

Located in the attic of an English Baroque Church, not far from London Bridge Station, is Britain’s only surviving 19th century operating room. The patients here were all women and they were all poor. You get a sense of going through a time portal as soon as you try to negotiate the steep and narrow spiral staircase that leads to the entrance.

Here be dragons.

Here be dragons.

Adding to the feeling of time travel is the price of admission. If you’re in the area and have £10, you’d be able to visit this place, and still have enough left for a pint afterwards–in case you feel a need to “take the edge off.”

This is what separates the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett from other medical museums.  Yes, you’ll find the usual rusty medical tools, jars filled with preserved entrails and fetuses that are so common in other venues dedicated to the history of medicine. But it’s more than just a sterile, commercial environment to satisfy the public’s morbid curiosity for what most would describe as barbarous medical practices in the days before the concept  of sanitation became synonymous with the term “hospital.”

It makes no excuses for its odd location in the attic of a church. It is what it is, standing where it has stood since 1822, and it’s not going to change just to cater for your 21st century sensibilities. It’s  almost as if it’s saying you have no business being here if you are not aware that St. Thomas’ Church used to be connected to the old St. Thomas’ Hospital, so of course it makes sense this place was rediscovered here, largely undisturbed after a century of somnolence, where time stood still while the outside world was too busy in its relentless pursuit of “progress”  to notice it. It looks exactly like it did before its closure in 1862.

The Herb Garret.

The Herb Garret.

The entrance leads to the herb garret, and immediately, scents you’d associate with an 1800s apothecary assail you. Dried herbs hang from the beams and the floorboards creak in protest with your every stride. There are recipes for known “all-around cures” such as snailwater and laudanum. You expect to see a bearded man sporting a pipe and a waistcoat to appear, looking offended by your trousers and suggest your malady can be cured by a bit of bleeding, and assure you that he has just the freshest leeches for the job.

Only the threat of being sent to Bedlam stops you from demanding the man keep his filthy hands to himself, to point out that there will come a time when both poor and rich people have equal access to the same quality of medical facilities and services. Of course, you don’t specify when such a ludicrous thing would happen, since you haven’t seen it happen in your own lifetime either. Perhaps you should be sent to Bedlam, after all.

The museum is a place where you can scoff at 19th century atrocities that are so prevalent in the modern world, we’ve become numb to it. This is the place where grim things happened, not just a tribute or reminder of it.

The Old Operating Theatre, picture taken a few years ago. For me, it's also a reminder to refrain from indulging too much in fried chicken.

The Old Operating Theatre, picture taken a few years ago. For me, it’s also a reminder to refrain from indulging too much in fried chicken.

It’s a given that the medical world today is more advanced than the crude practices of the 1800s, when students watched from the stands in a crowded room to observe an operation taking place. These days, at least the students can observe and giggle about the procedure in a separate room. Perhaps one of the medical students would even look like that girl from Grey’s Anatomy, so we can’t be too offended when they start flirting with Dr. McDreamy as you lie exposed to the world.

It’s hard to imagine that in the days before disinfectant and antibiotics, a poor person could be treated by some of the best surgeons of the day (many of them pioneers in their field), for free, as long as they agree to being observed by students. No, the operation does not happen in a plush private kitchen, but you can’t expect luxury treatment from the NHS, either. You do get treated, though. We’re able to cure more diseases now, but being turned away from the ER because you have no health insurance is not unheard of.

Back then, there was no concept of germs and sanitation, so many people died of infection rather than the initial injuries that caused them to be present in the operating room in the first place. With the advent of disinfectants, I’m certain there is no possibility that any in-patients would get worse because of an infectious and undetected virus spreading in the hospital any more. And with the discovery of penicillin, no one relies on medicinal herbs or alternative therapy any more, either.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) is also associated with this place. Most people know her as the one who popularised hygiene in medical practices and her nursing school, which elevated the reputation of women as nurses, was in St. Thomas’ Hospital. Because of her, it’s now acceptable for a woman to be a practising nurse, with qualifications as valid as any male nurse, and no one is going to claim their sex is the reason they’re incompetent or that they’re stealing the men’s jobs, not aloud anyway. It’s political correctness gone mad. She might not have known it then, but without Florence Nightingale, the sexy nurse costumes that have become a staple for Halloween would not even exist.

Thanks, Florence!

Thanks, Florence!

I won’t say anything about “bonking someone in the head” as a form of anaesthesia, though. Like leaving scissors in someone’s stomach, some things are just indefensible.

References:

http://www.thegarret.org.uk/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Operating_Theatre_Museum_and_Herb_Garret

http://www.daysoutguide.co.uk/the-old-operating-theatre

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1355780234766/

http://www.wellcomecollection.org/explore/time–place/topics/london/video.aspx

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3 thoughts on “The Old Operating Theatre

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