On Tuesday 21st March 2017, the first event of our new Chairman's year was a private guided tour of the Old Operating Theatre museum and Herb Garret.

This first event of the year proved to be extremely popular with a good turnout, despite numbers having to be slightly limited due to the extremely steep stairs required for access to the roof of St. Thomas’ Church, where the old operating theatre museum is located.


Ward members who climbed the near-vertical first group of 38 steps to the mezzanine then had a slightly easier climb up a further couple of flights of stairs and a short walk along the eaves to the main museum area where both red and white ‘oxygen’ was served along with other soft drinks to counter the effects of the altitude!

After visiting the displays which contained artefacts from not only the operating theatre museum but also the herb garret that used the eaves of the church, we were then given a fascinating lecture by the curator about the history of the operating theatre. The operating theatre on display is, in fact, the woman’s theatre and was in use from 1822, predating the usage of anaesthetics, until 1862, when St. Thomas’ Hospital left the area due to the completion of the final stages of the construction of London Bridge Station which was to swallow up much of the hospital’s estate. The entrance to the operating theatre was then blocked up shortly afterward and was forgotten about until rediscovered in 1956.

The lecture did not pull its punches and we were given a very thorough and extremely descriptive account of the techniques used in a pre-anaesthetic era operating theatre. Speed was most certainly of the essence - to prevent patients dying from shock it was advisable to complete an amputation in 30 seconds or less.

One of our brave ward members then ‘volunteered’ to be operated on and slightly nervously was placed on an exact replica of the 19th century operating table. Their nerves were slightly calmed when told that the record for an amputation was 10 seconds and was then promptly shown not only a full set of increasingly large Liston knives as well as a very sharp amputation saw, but we were also given a view of items such as a lithotomy knife. We will not give descriptions of what each of these instruments looked like or did and will let our readers discover this for themselves, but think it would be safe to say that the entire visiting membership at one stage or another winced! 

After a very lively Q&A session the ward membership made their way back to ground level after thanking the museum staff for taking the time to open the museum especially for us. The museum is now closed until the 2nd half of 2017 when, it was announced, a lift is to be installed to enable greater access……now they tell us!

To end the evening we walked the short distance from the museum to The Market Porter pub in Borough Market where in the privacy of our own dining room we had a delicious two course meal.

Despite our beloved secretary being unable to attend her meticulous planning ensured that a great time was had by all.

                                                 Neil Hitchens

Photos by Neil Hitchens
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