This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garrett on St. Thomas’s St in Southwark.
The museum occupies the attic of St Thomas’s Church, which was once at the core of the St. Thomas’s Hospital complex. Access is via a steep spiral staircase off the lobby of the church, which brings you up to the shop. Ascending another flight of steps takes you into the herb garrett proper – here there are several rooms with displays of surgical instruments such as knives, saws, hooks and so on, early anaesthetic equipment and even a recreation of an old apothecary with displays full of pill boxes and tinctures.
The clue to the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garrett’s most interesting feature is in the name – a vaulted space surmounted by a large skylight is occupied by what was the women’s operating theatre of St. Thomas’s Hospital, built in 1822. At the centre is a wooden operating table which is surrounded by ranks of raised benches and railings where the students would watch simple operations taking place. On the wall behind the table is a latin motto, Miseratione Non Mercede (translated as For Compassion Not For Gain) along with instructions on where particular classes of students should stand.
For the Anniversary weekend, demonstrations of surgical procedures took place every hour on the hour – during normal opening these are usually scheduled at 2pm on Saturdays. Standing in the galleries and observing one of these ‘operations’ (which involves a member of the audience lying on the table to demonstrate the techniques) visitors will discover that as crude forms of anaesthesia were not introduced until the late 1850s, early operations were carried out with the patient fully conscious. Speed was therefore of the essence in order to limit blood loss and prevent shock – the best surgeons of the time could remove a limb within two minutes. In actual fact few patients died on the table – those that didn’t recover usually succumbed to a post-operative infection (disinfecting a bloodied blade often involved simply wiping it clean with an old rag…).
The history of the museum is also covered by this talk, and that in itself is fascinating – the operating theatre fell out of use in 1862 when the hospital moved to purpose-built premises further up the street. It was closed and shuttered and then forgotten about, and was not re-discovered until 1956 when historian Raymond Russell came across it as part of his research on the history of St. Thomas’s Hospital. The women’s operating theatre had lain quiet and silent for nearly 95 years…
A visit to the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garrett is an unusual. and rather gruesome, experience – their regular opening hours are 10:30am to 5pm seven days a week, and cost of entry is £6 for adults and £3.50 for children (£5 concessions). Note that the museum is closed from 15 December to 5 January.