The Master's Reception at the Old Operating Theatre

Tuesday 14th May 2019

Housed in the attic of the early eighteenth-century church of the old St Thomas' Hospital, this atmospheric museum offers 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 included. Predating anaesthetics and antiseptics, it is the oldest surviving surgical theatre in Europe. Aware that this venue has been hired for private events in the daytime, some gentle enquiries established that an evening event would be possible.

So it was that on a balmy evening in May, forty three Tobacco Pipe Makers assembled in Southwark and climbed the narrow 52-step spiral staircase to the attic of the old church to be greeted by the staff of this unusual museum. We spent the first part of our evening enjoying the many exhibits that provided fascinating insights into the medicines and surgical practices of the early Victorian age, some of which were not for the faint-hearted.

After everyone had settled down, had a bite to eat and a fortifying drink, it was soon time to gird their loins and move into the old operating theatre itself. Here, our host provided us with a short history of the venue before embarking on a lurid account of the kind of operations performed in this space. The removal of gall stones was particularly unpleasant, leaving many in the audience sitting uncomfortably in their seats.

Many of the operations described were surprisingly effective but often let down by a lack of post-operative hygiene. There was little appreciation of germs and bacteria at the time, so the many deaths were attributed to all sorts of vague and obscure factors such as vapours or miasma. Interestingly, the rich intuitively recognised that being in a hospital was not a good thing and they tended to receive their treatments and procedures at home.

Seeing that the Master was a little unsteady on his feet, our host invited me down to the operating table whereupon he determined that one of my legs must be somehow afflicted and that it had best be removed. Displaying the surgical instruments to the audience it was clear from the reactions that this was not going to go well so I braced myself for the ordeal...without anasthaetic! Luckier patients might get a piece of wooden stick to bite on during the amputation but there wasn't one handy so I had to manage without. Readers, it was a terrible thing but I did make it through with dignity and fortitude despite the laughter and jeering of a baying audience. The final indignity was that no prosthetics were available after such an operation. My dreams of an elegantly carved wooden leg were dashed.

With all that excitement over, there was nothing left to do but return to the Herb Garret for a glass of wine...for medicinal purposes, of course.