The Old Operating Theatre is a weird London gem lost amidst the ground of Guys Hospital and over shined by the city’s newest landmark – the Shard. You wouldn’t notice the operating theatre and possibly have no need to be down St Thomas Street (unless you want a good shot looking up the Shard).
If you were to stumble upon it, you may be confused. A giant black designer skull hangs above your head and leads you into what looks to be an office of some kind. Averting your eyes from the actual entrance into the theatre.
A spiral staircase and 2 minutes of vertigo leads you through the gift shop of a medical historians dream. Another set of stairs takes you through into the roof of an old English Baroque church. The church, once apart of St Thomas Hospital was the main point of medical treatment for the poor and homeless around the Southwark area. Rediscovered in 1956, the theatre is now one of London’s most fascinating museums and offers a cramped yet fantastic eerie attic space.
Before seeing the actual theatre, the roof display acts as a giant cabinet of curiosity and visitors can walk around and investigate skeletons, medicines, medical tools – (look out for the monstrous forceps!) You are then led into the actual theatre. A soulless cold space which we are told would hold hundreds of students (although it looks to comfortably hold no more than 50!) Those at the front would be working their way up to actually perform on those having their arms and legs amputated. Now, the cold space of the theatre which delivers a less than hygienic and very uncomfortable area to be sat down in let alone have your arm chopped off. This was in pre-anaesthesia times and so these wannabe doctors would be under a lot of pressure to deliver the best practice whilst their patient would be awake – screaming in pain and terror. Curator Karen Howell starts to ‘saw’ away at a volunteers arm with one of the actual instruments (it’ basically a giant rusty-looking saw) as she tells us the patients were asked/told not to make any noise as they did not want to put off the patients who were waiting in the next room! Unbelievable facts are shot at you as she casually ‘performs’ operations on one of the visitors. It truly is impressive to find out all these little snippets of information and gorey facts as you watch the re-enactment in the actual theatre.
The Old Operating Theatre’s full title includes “and Herb Garret”. A Herb Garret, one might wonder, is basically the term for the attic space containing many herbs for apothecary. It was used by the hospital after it was rebuilt in 1703 to store herbs for medical use. Curator Karen gives a hands-on lecture for those interested in the herbs and their history if you want more than to watch amputations .
The Operating Theatre was mainly used for women as it adjoined the women’s ward.
Patients did not walk up the stairs they were hoisted up to the Theatre
It was in the grounds of the Hospital in Southwark that the first complete translation of the bible into English was made.
In 1859, Florence Nightingale became involved with St Thomas’s, setting up on this site her famous nursing school.
The Operating Theatre celebrated it’s 50th anniversary of being re-discovered last year (2012)
When the museum was being restored they found 4 poppies in one of the rafters (used for Opium)
- For groups, contact the museum beforehand and they will organise a talk and cater it to your needs
- Make sure you see one of the talks about amputation – it will really bring the theatre to life!
- Check out the website for events/lectures happening at the Theatre
HOW TO GET THERE
London Bridge Tube station