Live 'Amputations' Mark 200th Anniversary Of Old Operating Theatre

By M@ Last edited 17 months ago

Last Updated 12 December 2022

Live 'Amputations' Mark 200th Anniversary Of Old Operating Theatre
A leather-jacketed person in green jeans reclines on a table. We see a pretend surgeon in blooded apron wielding a knife behind. Their heads are cut off (not by blade, but by the edges of the photo)

One of London's smaller museums celebrates both its 60th and 200th anniversary this year. There will be blood.

You'd never know it was there. Indeed, for almost a century, nobody knew it was there.

This is the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, one of London's smallest museums, with the longest name.

2022 marks the 60th anniversary of the London Bridge attraction. But it's also exactly 200 years since the first surgical procedures happened here. And by 'surgical procedures', we mean 'saw your leg off without so much as a whiff of chloroform'.

A brown-brick church with Portland stone corners in the manner of Wren. A pathetic glass building looms in the background
The museum is reached by climbing this church tower.

A curious history

The horseshoe-shaped operating theatre opened in 1822 as part of St Thomas's Hospital (since decamped to Lambeth). It was built into an existing attic space of an 18th century church, which happened to sit alongside the women's ward. The space had previously been used for the storage and drying of herbs used in medicine, but now it was adapted to more direct interventions.

An empty operating theatre. All brown wood
Image (c) The Old Operating Theatre. Much of this is recreation, but the floorboards are genuine 19th century.

This was a scene of horror and hope. Many patients who came here would have been on death's door. Their only chance of survival was to have part of their body sawn off while fully awake and without anaesthetic. No antiseptics either; the surgeon would use unwashed tools with unwashed hands while taking pride in his bloodied apron. All this while medical students crowded into the stands to look down on the managed terror below.

An old operating table made of wood, with a raised headrest
A genuine operating table, thought to be the oldest of its kind in Britain

The operating theatre carried out hundreds of life-saving (and often ending) surgeries until its closure in 1862. In that year, the hospital shifted upriver to make way for the railways. The room was sealed up and forgotten. It was only rediscovered in 1957 and opened as a museum in 1962. It is the oldest surviving operating theatre in the UK.

Anniversary celebrations

A clutter of microdrawers, pos, jars and the random accoutrements of the apothecary
The venue is two museums in one. As well as the historic operating theatre, you can also explore the recreated herb garret. Can you guess what these wooden devices were for?

To mark the double anniversary, the museum has plenty of special events in store. The details have have only been partially announced (watch this space) but will feature "a host of guest speakers exploring the Old Operating Theatre’s place in the history of women’s health; subjects include surgery and the Victorian operating theatre, under-discussed medical topics such as endometriosis and menopause, treatment of rape victims from the Victorian era to today, and a virtual autopsy."

Our tip is to go along to anything featuring an historic re-enactment of an amputation. The details are grimly mesmerising, and a much-needed reminder of why it is good to be alive today and not 200 years ago.

Brown glass jars guarded by a skeleton

One physical centrepiece is a new replica doorway, whose audio-visual projections will recreate the long-vanished portal between the women's ward and the operating theatre. Incidentally, the old ward room still exists, but is now part of the British Transport Police building next door.

If you've never visited the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret, this would be an excellent excuse to tick it off. As well as the historic operating theatre, you can also explore the herb garret, which contains a heady mix of aromatic plants and severed body parts in its exploration of the history of medicine.

A human skull sculpture made up from metallic surgical objects. A red light shines from the forehead
A curious art installation at the entrance

If you go to see a historical re-enactment, just be careful what you volunteer for, or you might come away somewhat lighter than when you entered.

The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is accessed via the tower of St Thomas's, St Thomas's Street, London Bridge. Open Thursday-Sunday from 10.30am-5pm, prebook tickets. Note, access is via a 52-step spiral staircase.