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The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret

22 August 2015 | Marina Nenadic

Amidst the bustling Southwark Streets, flanked by Borough Market and The Shard, found in the roof above St Thomas Church is one of London’s best kept secrets. London Calling went down to The Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret, a historical testament to the great medical advances, which took place in 19th Century London to see what life before anesthesia and penicillin was really like.

The museum is accessed to the left of St Thomas Church doorway, up a steep spiral flight of stairs, with only a large rope attached to the central timber to keep visitors both upright and ascending. More trepid stairs bring visitors to the Herb Garret, filled to the brim with examples of surgical instruments, medicine bottles and anthropological specimens. The collection is displayed in such a way that the visitor needs to step over, look through and get up close to the displays. It’s a treasure trove of medical history, embellished with quaint hand written captions and grainy photographs.

Past the Herb Garrett sits what was once the Operating Room. A mark in the brickwork can still be seen whereby a door was installed to offer safe and convenient passage from the women’s ward of St Thomas Hospital. Towards the end of the 19th Century, the hospital moved to its current site in Lambeth and the operating theatre was abandoned. Although it was found entirely in disrepair, in 1956 the site was henceforth reimagined to tell the story of surgery and apothecary in a time where the poor people of London sought medical help right up to the advancement of surgery as we know it today.

Viewing platforms, which would have been filled with student surgeons during procedures, have been rebuilt, and the area below furnished with a wooden operating table.  Museum curator Karen Howell advises that if visitors feel faint they should sit down: this is a closed room, there’s not much air. The look is altogether a lot less clinical to that which we are currently accustomed, and it’s easy to imagine patients being wheeled through to an eager crowd. We’re told by Karen that, despite the lesser advances in medical technology, a surgeon at the time was required to undergo a 7 year apprenticeship before becoming qualified – no different to now. Karen leads talks on weekends at the museum, delving into such subjects as speed surgery and amputation with the enthusiasm and wit of someone who is clearly quite taken with the history of the place.

Karen explains that syphilis was rife in 19th Century London, particularly amongst the ‘working women’ and their male visitors along the Southbank, who were served by the hospital. With penicillin having not been invented and little known about venereal diseases, it became a deadly problem. The rich people could afford to be treated with mercury, which was later established to be highly toxic and dangerous for human use. The treatment favoured for the poor was in fact snail water, a concoction of 6 gallons of snails, three gallons of earth worms, and a number of herbs brewed and served on the wards. There’s a certain sense of delight emanating from Karen as she tells us about the fun she has imparting such information on visiting school children.

When asked about her favourite story in the museum, Karen enthusiastically ushers us over to a tiny photograph on the wall in the Antechamber, which surrounds the operating room. The photograph is of Dr. James Barry (c. 1789-1799 – 25 July 1865), credited as the first surgeon to perform a caesarean section in which both the mother and child lived. Barry once studied at St Thomas Hospital, and subsequently served as a surgeon in the military, rising to the senior rank of Inspector General. The interesting thing about Barry is that he was in fact female, and chose to live as a man so as to be accepted into University and be able to pursue a career in medicine. Barry’s fame and success has been largely ignored through history and in the media, Karen muses that it may have been the government at the time’s wish to keep such a record sealed.

For the morbidly curious and macabre enthusiasts, a trip to The Old Operating Theatre Museum is an experience not to be missed. We’d recommend timing your visit with one of the talks that take place, details of which can be found on the museum website here, to take full advantage of the knowledge of the museum staff. Visitors will leave informed, potentially a bit grossed out, and definitely thankful for the medical treatment we know today.

If you’re keen on the historical and medical drama, Sky Atlantic’s The Knick tells the story of brilliant surgeon John Thackery (Clive Owen) pushing the boundaries of medicine and morality at a New York Hospital at the turn of the 20th Century. It’s a great show with a stellar cast, the perfect addition to your box set collection. The complete first season is now available to buy here on DVD and Blu-ray from HBO Entertainment UK.

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