The Old Operating Theatre Museum - enlightening but gruesome

Living History

The Old Operating Theatre Museum - enlightening but gruesome

The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret are a preserved medical building near London Bridge, offering visitors a glimpse into the brutality of surgery in an earlier era. It is the oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe.

Housed in the attic of the early eighteenth-century church of the old St Thomas’ Hospital, this atmospheric museum provides a unique insight into the history of medicine and surgery. The original timber framed Herb Garret was once used to dry and store herbs for patients’ medicines, and in 1822 an operating theatre was added.

The Theatre was purpose-built with a large skylight, to maximise the light from above in an era before artificial illumination. Although not heated or ventilated, it provided an ideal, albeit small, area for demonstrating surgical skills to medical students, hence the galleried layout. The majority of cases at that time were amputations or the treatment of superficial complaints, as without antiseptic conditions, it was not feasible to carry out internal operations with any safety.

With its displays of surgical instruments and tales of operations without anaesthetics or antibiotics, the museum might not suit the squeamish, although it is highly revealing of how medical science has moved on in the last 200 years.

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