Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Sebastian's London: The Old Operating Theatre, St. Thomas's Hospital
Readers of the Sebastian St. Cyr series know that Paul Gibson serves as a surgeon at both St. Thomas's and St. Bartholomew's Hospitals in London. St. Bartholomew's still exists at Smithfield, but St. Thomas's moved from its original site in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames near London Bridge, in the Victorian period. Most of the hospital's buildings disappeared long ago. But one of St. Thomas's old operating theatres is still there and has been turned into a fascinating, small, hard to find, and vaguely disturbing little museum.
Once the operating theater for St. Thomas's women's ward, it is rather bizarrely sited in the attic of the old church (which is why it survived, hidden away). It actually dates to slightly later than our period--1822--but the conditions here were much as they had been for hundreds of years. The concept of antiseptic surgery was still decades away. So were anesthetics. Women were blindfolded before being brought in for their operations--presumably so they wouldn't see the watching students packed in the surrounding stands like "herrings in a barrel." Light was provided by a large overhead skylight. Most surgeries were amputations; a skilled surgeon like Gibson could cut off a leg in less than a minute, but without anesthetics it would still have been a nightmare.
Note the box of sand under the table to catch the blood.
If you're interested, the museum has a small website you can visit here.