St. Thomas Hospital in London; Macabre and Cozy Posted on January 18th, 2010 by

By Rachel Craig for T/D 199; Arts and Performance in London

The tenth of January started off with a bit of snow in London as the group of Gustavus students and I got off the tube at London Bridge Station and headed for the unknown. The activity that was originally planned was cancelled and had been replaced with something that was only alluded at by our professor, Henry MacCarthy, as “a creepy surprise”. We had no idea what was in store for us but after getting a bit lost, we ended up at our surprise; an old hospital that was converted into a museum. The place was called The Old Operating Theatre: Museum and Herb Garret. It had been the St Thomas Hospital ever since the twelfth century until 1862 when the land was bought up to make room for the Charing Cross railway, and was officially moved to a site in Lambeth in 1871, where it still operates today. The “new” site was even featured in the movie 28 Days Later.

What we explored was the old site, which was built in 1703. The building looked intimidating from the outside, a tall tower with peach brick. The entryway led to these winding stairs that were rather small; it made my average sized feet feel enormous. This led to a gift shop that had all sorts of ghoulishly fun things inside: walking wind up ears and skull piggy banks to name a few things. The woman working at the cash register (and later our tour guide) was a fantastic character. Very knowledgeable about the medical history of Britain, she wore all black and had clunky purple and black boots. It was a look I thought fit very well with her profession as a medical historian.

The herb garret, where apothecaries would make the medicine used in the clinic, looked like the attic of an eccentric elderly person and smelled like a garden.  It just felt cozy and I didn’t have a fear of touching anything, like I did at the other museums that we had visited so far. There was more noise from the patrons of the museum too, because there were no imposing guards that would inspire silence. The artifacts were housed in cases up here that didn’t seem to follow a certain pattern. Loose things were hanging from the rafters, jars were within reach and skeletons could be moved into different poses.

I first looked at the display case in the back corner, which contained medical instruments specializing in women’s health. The signs, which looked like they could have been original labels from the 18th century, informed me that this particular hospital was strictly a woman’s hospital. Some further research also said that the city of Southwark was the Red Light District and the people who came to St. Thomas’ were very poor. All the Gustavus kids and I ended up looking at the stuff in the case in disgust. There were such things as maggot wash and multi prong forceps. Eventually, we all ended up at the medical equipment case looking at everything in open mouthed shock. The tour guide popped up out of nowhere and said “Don’t worry ladies. There are some instruments over there that were particularly nasty for gentlemen,” pointing to an area off to the right. We all had a quick laugh and then she started her tour with information about the introduction of midwifery.

She started talking about how men practicing midwifery was a relatively new concept. It was first practiced by John Hunter, whom with his brother William, wrote and illustrated a book about the female anatomy. Artists were very important in the medical field at the time because they would record the anatomy of the human body. Since many people, doctors included, did not know what the female reproductive anatomy looked like, this guide and illustrations was a huge stepping stone in the field of midwifery.  Also, they could make diagrams of how operations should work and this would be a field guide for the surgeon.  A male obstetrician was not widely accepted around England until Queen Victoria insisted on using one. Because of this, women demanded a male obstetrician to keep with the trend that the Queen had started.

All of this was explained by the guide pointing to certain instruments and explaining their uses. These instruments, which were state of the art in by 19th century standards but to us, looked barbaric. Then she had us move into the Operating Theatre, which was a large room with a standing audience space raised above a stage with a operating table in the middle. There was a chalkboard on the back wall and a quote on the back of the wall that was not in English, but in Latin. This quote translated to “From compassion, not for gain” and was there to remind the surgeons that they were there for the patients, not for the money.

The people on the tour, us Gustavus people and some tourists, went up to the audience space and stood looking down at the table. The first thing I thought of were 19th century Americans that would bring picnics to watch actual Civil War battles and I was afraid that this would be something like a horror show. It ended up being the exact opposite of this. This was an operating theatre, built so that medical students could watch surgeons perform operations. How much a student actually learned depended on how much the surgeon would talk to the audience during the process. Students would pay the hospital to watch the operations and the hospital would hire a surgeon to perform in the theatre. The surgeons were making money but this was mainly for the benefit of the students. The theatre had a skylight that allowed the surgeon more light while performing operations. Surgeons had to be quick and accurate while performing an operation so that the patient had less of a chance of bleeding to death or passing out from the pain. Some surgeons could perform an amputation in thirty seconds!

All of this happened with the patient conscious on the operating table. This was startling to me and I tried to imagine having to be awake for an amputation or something similar. I would have probably passed out from seeing the instruments that would be used on me, such as a saw or long knives, but the guide said that that was the worst thing a patient could do. If the patient passed out, the surgeon could not gauge how the patient was feeling and they surgeon could do more harm than good. The worst thing that could happen if a patient passed out and didn’t wake up in a reasonable time period was being buried alive in a grave. At the time the operating theatre was built, 1822, safe anesthesia had not been invented. If a surgeon attempted to use some, they could very well poison the patient than help ease their pain.

What surprised and intrigued me the most was something the tour guide kept on stressing when she was telling us about interesting artifacts such as the blood box, a box filled with saw dust that caught the blood from the patient during an operation. 18th and 19th century surgeons were not as barbaric as I assumed they were, though this may be because the most I knew about English doctors was from The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They cared for their patients and studied human anatomy (which would involve finding and cutting up corpses) to learn more so they could help the poor people that would come into the hospital. Likewise, they could do a surprising amount of surgeries that people would expect 19th century surgeons to know, such as rhinoplasty, spine surgery and some chest surgery.

Learning all of this while standing in a place that up until 1862 was performing surgeries for the benefit of the patient and the students was an excellent way to absorb all of this information. This guide took questions at all times and would back up whatever answer she would give us with plenty of information. She even let someone jump up onto the 19thcentury operating table in the middle of the theatre, so that we could see that is was a fairly short table. The best part of the tour was when she pulled out a surgeon’s kit and pretended that she was going to perform an operation on the poor person lying on the table. She let us hold the instruments inside the kit, which ranged from a small knife to a large saw and loved what she was talking about. Her enthusiasm was contagious and it inspired me to look into more about old hospitals when I got back to my flat; something that didn’t happen with the other tour guides I have had so far in London.

The place felt old and I ended up spending more time in the herb garret looking at pickled human body parts and animal skins than the other visitors. This museum, something that seems off the beaten path and not where a Performing Arts class would normally go, was a highlight for this trip. It showed that with the right tour guide and authentic surroundings that could be interacted with, people will become interested in anything. This woman represented the Operating Theatre and Herb garret and was able to do this with a sense of humor. In a class a few days later, us students and Henry agreed that she was one of our favorite tour guides and was also the most engaging one. She knew her stuff, which is British medical history, and was able to make it interesting to a group of Americans who wouldn’t give the subject a second thought. Becoming interested in something that I wouldn’t give a second thought to…that was something that will stick with me after this trip.

The Old Operating Theatre


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