There are several reasons why I would never want to go back in history and healthcare (or lack thereof) is a big one. The history of medicine is disgusting, horrific, and painful. And yet, it is also fascinating at the same time. On my last trip to London, I spent some time checking out the Old Operating Theatre Museum. It certainly did not disappoint!
This museum is located in the garret of St. Thomas’s Church in Southwark; the property once held the St. Thomas’ Hospital. The church was built at the end of the 17th-century which is about when the garret was likely built as well. The garret was originally a place where the hospital’s apothecary stored and cured medicinal herbs. In 1822, part of the herb garret was converted into an operating theatre, the main draw of the museum today.
Did You Know? St. Thomas’s Hospital is where Florence Nightingale set up her nursing school in 1859. However, upon her recommendation, the hospital moved to a new location not long after; the Southwark location and its operating theatre remained closed until the early 1960s when it reopened as a museum.
The narrow windy staircase up to the garret can be a bit of a challenge if you’re trying to go up while other people are coming down. Some patience may be required! But once you’re up in the museum, the first area to explore would be an awesome collection of medicinal artefacts. Take the time to read the posted signs – how anyone survived history to continue humanity, it’s beyond me.
The patients at this hospital generally would have been poor and the ones who used this operating theatre were all women. Patients were required to pay fees for their treatment upfront and they were also required to pay the fees to cover burial costs just in case they died in hospital. Which was entirely possible as it wasn’t until 1847 that anaesthetics were in use. Also, you were lucky if your surgeon washed his hands before slicing into you, letting your blood drip into a sawdust box where it mingled with the blood from previous patients.
Oh, and in case you aren’t grossed out yet, take another look at the photo of the operating theatre. See the rows? Those were generally filled with students and “students”; they were there to watch whatever procedure was occurring at any given time. It was definitely not unheard of for a viewer to shout “Heads! Heads!” if he found that someone involved in the actual surgery was blocking his precious view. So, you are probably now wondering why in the world did patients come here? Well, if you were poor and especially if you were a poor woman, your options in London were limited. Also, this hospital apparently had great doctors and surgeons for the time… So yeah, I am definitely happy to have been born today and not back then!