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Inside London’s Pioneering Victorian Operating Theatre • The Old Operating Theatre Museum

Alex Landon Alex Landon - Editor

Old Operating Theatre

The Old Operating Theatre Museum is an incredible glimpse into London’s past.

Back in October, we were heartened by the excellent news that London had been named the best city in Europe for hospital care. A great accolade, no doubt, but one that’s been earned over years of practice and advancements in modernising medicine – and one place which played an important part in this is London’s fascinating Old Operating Theatre Museum. Now an educational space, it offers amazing insights into the history of healthcare, and you can find your tickets here.

Old Operating Theatre
Photo: @oldoperatingtheatre

In fact, the museum is one of the most stark examples of old and new colliding, for Europe’s oldest surviving operating theatre lies in the shadow of the ultra-modern Shard. It’s the former site of St Thomas’ Hospital; a medical facility has stood on this spot since the twelfth century, surviving both the reforming instincts of Henry VIII and Southwark’s notoriously rowdy reputation until departing for pastures new in 1862.

Old Operating Theatre
Photo: @oldoperatingtheatre

The Old Operating Theatre was a relative latecomer to the hospital setup, with the male theatre arriving in 1751, and the female theatre – the surviving theatre which now forms the basis of the museum – being constructed in 1821 (blame the patriarchy for the delay). Pioneering medical techniques were tested in a rather inauspicious setting, as the theatre is tucked away up in the attic of the old church of St Thomas’, ensuring that surgeons were able to make use of maximum daylight.

Old Operating Theatre
Photo: @oldoperatingtheatre

The theatre had previously been used as the hospital’s Herb Garret (essentially a forerunner to today’s pharmacies), but as ward operations were rather distressing, it was chosen to be the new women’s theatre. It spent some forty years as a surgical theatre, acting both as a potentially life-saving treatment room, and lecture theatre for medical students, who would fill the benches around the operating table and observe surgeries in action.

Old Operating Theatre
Photo: @oldoperatingtheatre

When St Thomas’ Hospital relocated to Lambeth, the entrances to the theatre were boarded up, and it was mostly forgotten about until Raymond Russell, who was researching the history of St Thomas’, went investigating. Stumbling across Europe’s oldest surviving operating theatre has led to the formation of one of London’s most fascinating museums, although it needed a fair bit of restoration before it could open to the public – one particularly gruesome renovation, relayed on the museum’s website, required a cement cutter to slice through layers of sawdust that had been congealed with blood. Lovely!

Old Operating Theatre
Photo: @oldoperatingtheatre

Nowadays, there’s far less blood and gore, and a lot more education going on at The Old Operating Theatre. The museum runs weekly Victorian Surgery talks, which provide mock demonstrations of how surgery was performed in the Victorian era (spoiler alert: it was quick and without anaesthetic). More specialised talks – subjects in 2020 include ‘Pornography, Psychology, Paranoia and the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Body’ and ‘Diseased Flesh in the Early Modern Era’ – make for enlightening evenings out, as do regular film nights.

Old Operating Theatre
Photo: @oldoperatingtheatre

Next on The Old Operating Theatre’s varied agenda is a guitar concert, featuring music from 19th-century female composers that have been unjustly neglected. Hosting this unique event inside a former women’s operating theatre is sure to be a moving experience, and you can book yourself a space here.

Old Operating Theatre
Photo: @oldoperatingtheatre

Elsewhere in the museum, you’ll see cabinets of curiosities, including first aid kits, old prosthetic limbs, and surgical equipment, all of which will make you extremely thankful for our NHS. The museum’s commitment to education and interesting experiences is laudable, and best of all, unlike some former patients, you’ll be leaving with all your limbs intact!

Practical information

Open 2-5pm (Mon), 10:30am-5pm (Tue to Fri, plus bank holidays), 12-4pm (Sat & Sun).
Adult tickets are £6.50 - buy them through Fever.

Featured image: @oldoperatingtheatre


Also published on Medium.