To be honest, there are some museums I might never want to visit. Mostly they represent the nastier side of human nature, like torture. So it is with some trepidation that I touch upon the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London. Exhibits of early surgical instruments bear a frightening resemblance to torture instruments.
But let’s not dwell on that, and instead I will describe the more remarkable history of the museum. It is one of the oldest surviving operating theatres and situated in the roof space of a church that was part of the original site of St Thomas’s Hospital. The theatre was constructed in a partially converted herb garret next to the women’s ward, and solely used for female surgery, and mainly poor women. This conversion happened in 1822, but in 1859, Florence Nightingale advised moving the hospital to Charing Cross where it remained. Consequently, the theatre was closed and lay undiscovered until 1957.
The room is small with five rows of benches. Operating theatres were really a spectator activity back then. Students learnt by watching, and with a lack of anaesthetics they also had to endure and block out the screaming. Surgeons were renowned more for their speed then personal hygiene. Mortality rates were high. In the UK, surgeons have the title of Mister, although they are trained as doctors. Why? It seems spilling blood by physicians was banned in 12th Century by the pope. Consequently, surgeons gave up their title as Doctor and reverted to Mister. This practice continues in Britain.
19th Century surgery went through some major changes with the arrival of crucial inventions. Humphrey Davy offered the nitrous oxide, the first attempt at sedation, then Michael Faraday brought us ether, followed by John Lister adding the all important antiseptic carbolic acid to the list of essential materials for an operating theatre.
If you don’t want to dwell on the gruesome exhibits you could take refuge in the herb garret, which was probably used to store dry herbs for the apothecary. How did the garret end up as a theatre? The old operating theatre is in the roof space of the St Thomas church (hence the name of the hospital). Originally medieval, rebuilt in 1702 in a classical style, the church is the oldest surviving part of the original St Thomas hospital. The garret was at the same level as the neighbouring women’s surgical ward, the Dorcas Ward. The two were connected with the garret having a separate entrance for students. Usefully the theatre was relatively sound proof, and patients could be easily transferred between ward and theatre.
After 1862, the entrances were blocked up. The only access left was an opening 15 feet from the first floor and it needed a ladder. In 1956 Raymond Russell, historian, climbed into the garret, and discovered in the one hundred years of dirt, the remains of the operating theatre. A remarkable discovery. No other 19th century operating theatre in Europe has survived.
Access is now via a narrow 52 step spiral staircase. No ladder required. For that reason alone, I might one day visit it.