09 March 2016

The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret

Imagine you were sick, gall stones, and you had to have an operation where a thin metal rod was stuck into your *ahem* and a small incision to be made behind your *ahem* to get them out. Now imagine that I told you the operation would be without anaesthetic. And because of that there will be men holding you down. And there will probably be about 150 medical students watching. But it'll be over really fast ,45 seconds in fact. That's not so bad is it? Did I mention the blindfold?

Try not to think about the red stain on the pulled out part of the operating table...

Hidden in an old church attic, lost for almost hundred years is a small old operating theatre. It used to belong to the female ward of the St Thomas hospital before the hospital moved and its grounds sold to the railway companies.

Entrance to the Old Operating Theatre - no the patients did not come up this way.

The theatre has been on my list of things to see in London for a while and a couple of weekends ago I finally managed to visit. I was even more fortunate to be squeezed in to the lecture which was booked out (there were a couple of no shows). The lady giving the talk was brilliant, she made a few grown men cringe and kids squirm.

One of the knives used for amputation
She talked about a couple of operations back when the operating theatre was in use, one an amputation another a gallstone removal - both operations would have been held at midday, to make full use of the natural light from the skylight. She also spoke about how medicine was viewed, how operations were about taking things away from the body because it was all about doing things fast, before anaesthetic began to be used and it could slow down. She spoke about how the theatre was found, like a little time capsule, years later. It was fascinating.
Ready to saw off that leg?
Even the operating table itself had so many unique features - firstly this was pre-recognition of germs...hence wood. It had grooves for the blood to trickle down and was quite low so the men holding patients down would be gravity assisted. Can you guess what the elevated head piece was for?

After the talk I had a look around the small herb garret which had been used for drying herbs used in medicines of the time before a patients recovery room. There were displays of doctors instruments, old medical equipment, pathology, herbs, early medication, an apothecary shop and more. I even came across a small pamphlet talking about a lady named Miranda who, determined to be a doctor, made herself over as a man, named James Barry, became a successful doctor and was buried as a man. Can you imagine that kind of dedication?

Whether your interested in medical history, are a medical student (like some I overheard), like secret and forgotten pieces of the past, or just want to see grown men cringe ;) The old operating theatre is unique and the oldest in Europe.

Anaesthetic masks

A visit costs £6.50 for adults and the Saturday 2pm lecture books out weeks in advance so book early! While you are in the area, you can always pop in to Borough Markets for a bite or a coffee :)

If you cant visit in person, do have a look at their virtual tour, the images from the garret do far better justice to the space than my photos!


  1. I might just have to check out that online tour...

  2. I visited a couple of years ago, must have been interesting to attend the lecture!

    1. It was, it just brought the whole museum to life.

  3. I walked past this place for almost 4 years and still haven't visited! It looks fun!

    1. You did?! Lol, so many things to see in London, so little time! ;)