If you were a poor woman in 19th century London, the healthcare system was something to be avoided. Until 1846 there was no anesthetic, so you would put your hope on the speed of your surgeon if something brought you to the operating table. You can probably imagine that a surgery such as an amputation would not have been a pleasant ordeal. If you were fortunate enough not to have went into shock and died, the procedure itself would probably be enough to scar you for life.
The women who were operated on in the small operating theatre on St. Thomas Street, nestled in the rooftop above an ancient church, are now long gone. Their ghosts have disappeared with renovations through time, and the memories of these women have vanished with their loved ones.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret serves as a memoriam as much as an educational tool on pre-modern medicine. While there is no reflection into the individuals who once came to this spot looking for a miracle, you can’t help but wonder about them as you look through the surgical tools and medicines used to treat ailments during the time.
The Old Operating Theatre has been on my London to-do list for some time. It was just as quirky as I had hoped with stuffed alligators, human skeletons, and recipes for ‘Snailwater’ haphazardly strewn across various displays in the attic room. As the operating theatre is located in the old herb garret of St. Thomas Church, the experience is magnified by displays of the herbs and plants and miracle cures that the apothecary once stored there.
‘Take Garden-Snails cleansed and bruised 6 gallons,
Earthworms washed and bruised 3 Gallons,
Of common Wormwood, Ground-Ivy, and Carduus, each one Pound and half,
Penniroyal, Juniper-berries, Fennelseeds, Aniseeds, each half a Pound,
Cloves and Cubebs bruised, each 3 Ounces,
Spirit of Wine and Spring-water, of each 8 Gallons.
Digest them together for the space of 24 Hours,
And then draw it off in a common Alembick.’
Recipe by Dr Richard Mead (Physician to St. Thomas’s Hospital)
in ‘Pharmacopoeia Pauperum’ 1718 (compiled by Henry Banyer)
The Old Operating Theatre itself is smaller than I had anticipated. I guess the word ‘theatre’ invokes a large space in this head of mine, but the room is similar in size to what you would find of an operation room today. The theatre was reserved for the poorest women, those who could not afford a surgery in their own home as was common practice at the time. Medical students would sit around on the rows and watch the surgery, taking notes and whispering among themselves about the wonder of the human body.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum is a hodgepodge of fascinating trinkets, weird concoctions, and historical relics. It is also one of those unique destinations that you really need to see for yourself to appreciate. If you are a fan of the stranger things in life, and have already visited the main London museums, I encourage you to climb the tiny, winding staircase to the attic of 9 St. Thomas Street.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum is only a five minute walk from London Bridge Station (and the Shard!). The museum is open every day from 10am to 5pm, except Christmas and Boxing Day. Adult admission is £6.50, under 16 is £3.50. There is no elevator and the stairs are very steep, as such the location is only suitable to those who are able to climb up.