London History

.’. Operating Theatre .’.


I found this place while walking around Southwark few years back. As I love old churchs and while passing by St. Thomas Church I decided to go in and have a look, for my surprise inside of the Church I found at the top of a very old wooden spiral staircase with uneven steps the Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret.

The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is a museum of surgical history and one of the oldest surviving operating theatres. It is located in the garret (habitable attic) of St Thomas’s Church, Southwark, on the original site of the old St Thomas’ Hospital.

St Thomas Church was build at end of the 17th century and it says that the garret was used only by the Apothecary of the Hospital untill 1821 to cure herbs and medicine for the use of the old St. Thomas Hospital.

In 1822 the herb garret was converted into a purpose-built operating theatre. The Operating theater was a non-sterile, tiered theater or amphitheater in which students and other spectators could watch surgeons perform surgery.

The patients were mainly poor people who were expected to contribute to their care if they could afford it. Rich patients were treated and operated on at home rather than in hospital. The patients at the Old Operating Theatre were all women.

Until 1847, surgeons had no recourse to anaesthetics and depended on swift technique (surgeons could perform an amputation in a minute or less), the mental preparation of the patient, and alcohol or opiates to dull the patient’s senses. Thereafter, ether or chloroform started to be used. The Operating Theatre had closed down before antiseptic surgery was invented.

In 1859, Florence Nightingale became involved with St Thomas’s, setting up on this site her famous nursing school. It was on her advice that the Hospital agreed to move to a new site when the Charing Cross Railway Company offered to buy the hospital’s land. In 1862, the hospital began the move to its present site at Lambeth and the operating theatre was closed. The theatre lay undiscovered until 1957.

In 1962, after 100 years of disuse, the garret and operating theatre were opened to the public as the current museum. It is an unusual place, but also one of those secrets of London that we can’t resist a visit. Filled with herbs, stuffed animals and old props we feel like we just got into a time machine were the years went back to the days of medieval medicine.

The museum have great events and I definately say that a visit is a MUST!



One thought on “.’. Operating Theatre .’.

  1. Well, you never know what’s round the corner 😉 Wha an amazing little place! I’m so glad though that we don’t have to rely on alcohol and opiates any longer to put a patient under. I wonder how many of these poor folks did never wake up again.


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