Monday, 7 April 2014

Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garret

St Thomas Street SE1 9RY
Wednesday April 3rd 2014

Mary was back from catching up with family on her Asian adventure, so the three of us gathered at the foot of the Shard, otherwise known as London Bridge Station. This was to be our foray into the South for this week’s museums.
Some people can be quite ‘sniffy’ about South London but one of its major plus points are the trio of excellent hospitals. Guy’s and St Thomas’s are very close to each other and rationalisation has meant that some services are now combined on one or other site but nevertheless they maintain their own identity.  St Thomas’s, named for that favourite English Martyr St Thomas a Becket and originally part of St Mary Overie Priory, was essentially a very early religious foundation hospital and used to be here in Southwark before it moved to just beside Westminster Bridge.  Guy’s, which is here now, was founded much later by Sir Thomas Guy after St Thomas’s had re-established themselves in Lambeth. Number three in the South London hospital world is of course King’s College, whose main teaching area is on the Strand but whose hospital is in SE5 Camberwell.

The Old Operating Theatre belonged to St Thomas’s  but is actually just opposite the pretty and historic courtyards of Guy’s just to confuse matters further. The museum, which has an excellent website, is in the old rather striking tower of St Thomas’ Church. According to Wikipedia the main body of the Church is still subject to a dispute between the Jubilee Line and church landowners.  A beautiful wrought iron skull hangs over the porch entrance but the museum is up a 32 step spiral staircase so beware if you have mobility problems.
Just a word about hospitality (you can see where I am going with this): the museum because of its historic site has no toilets, and the shop is cramped but delightful – instead of the usual smooth marketing pioneered by the National Trust (soaps/china mugs etc) this is a cluttered collection containing some serious books on the history of medicine alongside GIANT microbes and you thought I was joking.
The merchandise is arranged according to where they can fit them under the eaves as opposed to any marketing strategy. We were about to show our National Trust cards to gain reduced entry when the kindly cashier/guide offered us an even greater reduction on the grounds that they had double booked two school parties and the museum would be over-run. In the event we got into the operating theatre after School 1 and were enjoying the Garret by the time School 2 arrived – so we were able to enjoy a leisurely and unimpeded viewing.   

Talking of unimpeded viewings, the operating theatre is well raked with 5 semi-circular rows for the observing medical and apothecary students. Admittedly I was wearing a back pack but found fitting along a row quite a squeeze. ‘They were packed like herrings in a barrel but a lot less silent’ one account says. How apt. The herrings would have seen only women patients as at the time the theatre was adjacent to a women’s ward – for several centuries only the poor were treated in hospital and in Southwark that probably meant the prostitutes from the very many adjacent brothels  or ‘stews’ hereabouts. Neither was there any anaesthesia till late 19th century .
The display cases show a range of surgical instruments reminding us why surgeons were called ‘Sawbones’ and surgical students named ‘dressers’ (for a lively description of similar operations see  here ).

Alongside these are examples of early anaesthetic devices and the famous bars of carbolic soap which finally offered some degree of antiseptic  protection.  Individual surgeons are remembered also –  Astley Cooper,
a St Thomas’s student, who surprisingly early operated successfully on an aneurysm. The theatre – and it must have been a real performance except for the unfortunate starring patient – is one of the earliest surviving. Note the bowl of sawdust beneath the table to catch the blood.

You leave the theatre alongside a range of cases displaying the different specialisms of both doctors and surgeons. Florence Nightingale opined that nursing children requires a special temperament but the children of Southwark were given  their own hospital – the Evelina – thanks to Baron Rothschild. It has in its time been both at Guy’s and St Thomas’s but since 2004 has its own magnificent child-friendly building at the latter.  Close to, the obstetric instruments look surprisingly big and probably remain largely unchanged so it was something of a relief to move onto dressings/pills and potions. It is likely the herbs were kept here to minimise the risk of mice and have space to dry away from the damp ‘miasmas’ of Thames side Southwark.
The LWB have relatives who are both doctors and pharmacists so could view some of the exhibits with a degree of ‘insider knowledge’ – having said that I think the museum would appeal to all and any visitor could relate to a feeling of gratitude that we are able to experience 21st century medicine in all its glory which would not be so advanced without its origins that you see here. For example, I had never heard the story of the man who sucked on his willow twigs and felt so good on the results that he shared the experience… The eventual outcome was that really useful  drug  Aspirin.

The garret is full of herbs you can still find in your garden, or seeds from the store cupboard like linseed. My only criticism would be that the beautiful, handwritten labels, totally in keeping with the atmosphere of the whole, are not easy to decipher in a low light.   Penny Royal for hysteria amongst other cures, and oranges and limes to keep scurvy at bay; the discovery of the beneficial side-effects of everyday foodstuffs are well documented here and you realize how far people had come from the days when they administered snake oil and extract of crocodile.
And all – ‘Miseratione Non Mercede' – for compassion not for gain.

I think we could have lingered longer but felt we should side-step the latest school party and let them squirm in front of the surgical instruments while we made our way back down and home from London Bridge.     

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