200th anniversary of London’s oldest surviving surgical theater

Hidden away in the roof of an old church near London Bridge can be found the oldest surviving surgical theater in Europe, and plans have been announced to mark its 200th anniversary.

Tucked away in the attic of an 18th- century church on the original Southwark site of St Thomas’ Hospital, the Old Operating Theater Museum & Herb Garret is a remarkable survivor in the history of medicine and surgery.

Opened 200 years ago in the roof of the old church as an operating theater for women, it was literally a theater, with rows of raised stands around for people to watch the surgery, which in an age before anesthetic, had to be carried out as fast as possible. In many cases, patients brought to the operating theater were facing death due to their injuries or condition, leading some surgeons to use the operating theater as an opportunity to practice and hone new techniques.

If that’s not grim enough, know also that a tray of sawdust would be placed underneath the operating bed captured the blood from the patient being operated on.

(c) Old Operating Theater Museum and Herb Garret

When St Thomas’s Hospital moved to a new site in 1862, the theater was sealed in the church roof and largely forgotten for nearly 100 years. Then, in 1956, the organologist and antiquarian Raymond Russell rediscovered it while investigating the church’s attic and with support from surgeons and medical practitioners of the day, the Museum that now occupies the site opened in 1962.

Now in its 200th year, a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant of £ 125,122 will enable the Museum to introduce a new installation, showing visitors exactly where and how patients would have been brought into the theater 200 years ago.

The museum will also launch a program of events, as well as a research project designed to unearth the stories of the surgeons, nurses, students and patients who worked, studied or found themselves on the operating table at the theater between 1822 and 1862.

Among the other developments for 2022 is the reintroduction of a replica doorway from the old Dorcas ward into the operating theater. Around the entrance door, an audio-visual installation will give visitors a clear sense of how patients would have been brought into the space, while their relatives would often pray downstairs in the church for a successful outcome.

At the moment, the museum is open Thur-Sun from 10:30 am-5pm.

Being above an old church, entry is only possible via a narrow spiral staircase, which while lacking accessibility, is certainly a very atmospheric way of starting a visit to a museum.

You need to pre-book tickets from here.

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