Old Operating Theatre Museum

Located in Southwark, London, The Old Operating Theatre Museum is one of London’s oldest and most intriguing museums.

The original operating theatre was built in 1822 in the garret of Old St Thomas Church as a means of demonstrating surgical and medical procedures, and to highlight the rapidness of many of the surgeons’ skills.

Many poor and destitute people came here to have procedures performed, often without anaesthetic. The Old St Thomas Church garret or attic room is where the celebrated social reformer Florence Nightingale worked in the 13th century, 400 hundred years beforehand. Unfortunately, the operating theatre was blocked up for a hundred years before it was rediscovered in 1956 and transformed into a museum six years later.

The original operating theatre was an image many of us couldn’t even fathom. The operating theatre was open only to the poorest of people, and every single patient at the theatre was female. Anaesthetics were undiscovered and so the procedures were performed extremely swiftly, with amputations happening in a few seconds. The only pain relief patients received included alcohol, opiates and chloroform.

The museum now displays the herb garrets used by the apothecaries, the artefacts that display the horrors of medicine at the time, including instruments for bleeding and childbirth. There is also an in depth history into medieval monastic care and the history of the church and hospital itself.

Look out for…

  • The Herb Garret-Located in the roof space of the museum, the herb garret tells the story of the weird and wonderful herbs and potions used in the medicine of the time. Discover original storage cabinets used as well as learn about the different herbs used and their purpose. Interestingly, in the restoration of 1962, four poppies were found in the rafters, showing that opioids were a common method, and we know use a more advanced version of opium now – morphine.
  • The Emergency Room- The operating theatre itself, and observe the seats that were there so many people could watch the procedure. The operating table and some of the instruments used. The room is also located in the roof of the hospital—to maximise the amount of light from above, and at the time, this was considered the perfect operating environment. The Emergency Room was soundproofed as much as could be done during this era, in order to keep the screams of those being operated on, as hidden as much as possible from other patients on the ward.

Did you know?…

  • Discovered in the grounds of this very hospital the first English Bible was found. In the hospital itself, the Bible underwent its full transformation into English. This amazing discovery goes to show the mixture of delights and horrors, as well as giving you a sense of the different kinds of people that would have been admitted to this hospital.

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All information is drawn from or provided by the museums themselves and every effort is made to ensure it is correct. Please remember to double check opening hours with the venue concerned before making a special visit.