THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE AT THE OLD OPERATING THEATRE
WORDS BY DIVYA SEHGAL
With a range of scalpels and saws on display, The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret is a unique glimpse into London’s past.
You never really think that you'll discover something completely new in a city you've lived long enough. But with a city as dynamic and historic as London, it's safe to assume that one shouldn't have such assumptions. And The Old Operating Theatre, the oldest surviving operating room in Europe had me discovering a newfound love of the macabre.
Winters are the best time to unearth such indoor delights, and that's exactly what my husband and I did to celebrate our anniversary. Yes, I know it seems strange that we took a guided tour around what used to be a hospital to celebrate our wedding day but it seemed like an exciting and completely otherworldly thing to do on a rainy, cold, January weekend. Tucked in the corner of a side street in London Bridge, the Old Operating Theatre shares its building with St. Thomas's Church, on the original site of St. Thomas’s Hospital. The guide mentioned that, in the 17th century, it was a given that anyone who entered the Old Operating Theatre would never walk out those doors again.
The Operating Theatre might be the star attraction, but it's the other little nuggets of information you glean that make this little museum perversely fun. You enter through a narrow spiral staircase – which made us all wonder however did the patients get up there for treatment (rest assured there is a plausible explanation) – and enter Disneyland for medical students. An apothecary herb garret stands to the back of the room, with numerous kinds of fauna – sometimes hard to believe that trained medical professionals resorted to what now seems like "Grandma's herbal remedies". Surprisingly (or maybe not so), this area is almost always overrun with children who quite swiftly get on to make a herbal medicine of their choice (let's add in some of this Raspberry Leaf and mix it in with Parsley!). You wouldn't think that a place as morbid as this, with a range of scalpels and saws on display, would appeal to young kids, but we tend to forget that children have a wilder and a more, let's say, capricious imagination than adults.
The room then automatically leads us to the Operating Theatre – a semi-circular room. An amphitheatre, if you like, as if we're all here to watch a tragic play. The gallery fits in about 150 people, and in the earlier days was used by medical students to observe the way the surgeon sawed through bones and cartilage while the patient no doubt screamed in pain. Oh, did I not say? Anaesthesia hadn't been invented then, and doctors preferred their patients to be conscious with their eyes open so they could gauge their reactions. I did say it was a morbid affair.
Celebrities from another era are attached to the building: Thomas Cartwright – master mason to Sir Christopher Wren was the architect, and Florence Nightingale set up her nursing school at St. Thomas’s. The Old Operating Theatre is, to use an oxymoron, one of those widely known secrets that I sadly only just discovered, and I'm torn between telling everyone to go to this place to experience the wide-eyed history of medicine and keeping it all to myself.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, 9a St. Thomas Street, London, SE1 9RY. Phone: 020 7188 2679
Photographs courtesy The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. Feature photo by Peter Dazely. Story photos by MA Walker.