A Look into the The Old Operating Theater Museum and Herb Garret in Southwark

Ever wondered what surgery was like before anesthesia came into the picture? A visit to the Old Operating Theater Museum and Herb Garret is as close as you’ll come to answers.

Housed in the garret of the St. Thomas Church, The Old Operating Theater is a surgical history museum with a multi-century history to explore. So was it a scene of horror or hope? Read on to find out.

A Walk Down Memory Lane

The Old Operating Theater Museum was a herb garret until 1822 when part of it was converted into a surgical theater. It mainly served female patients from humble backgrounds, who, unlike the rich, couldn’t afford home medical care. They would undergo surgery in front of a student audience in exchange for affordable, and sometimes, free medical care from some of the best surgeons in the country.

The Old Operating Theater began operations during the pre-anaesthesia era meaning patients would be awake throughout the process, and had to rely on opiates, alcohol and most importantly, mental preparation to dull the pain. The patients would be offered something to bite on to muffle their screams, and the students packed in the second row of the little garret were reportedly pretty noisy.  Surgeons on the other hand relied on swift amputation meaning the faster the process, the better the survival rate.

As a result, most of the cases, especially those that involved amputation often ended with infections, and mostly, death.  And since surgery was dangerous, it was often the last resort, making the mortality rate at the theater even higher. Conditions were also quite unsanitary and surgeons reportedly wore coats stinking with pus and blood.  The theater was closed in 1862 after the St. Thomas Hospital moved to a new site. It was discovered by a historian in 1956, and was named the oldest surviving theater in Europe. It opened its doors as a public museum in 1962, after an entire century of disuse.

The Old Operating Theater Museum and Herb Garret Today

The Old Operating Theater Museum is still housed in the attic of the St. Thomas Church on 9a St. Thomas Street today. It’s one of the oldest surviving operating theaters not just in London, but in Europe as a whole making it a must-visit landmark after a tattoo in Shoreditch. Ascending the 52-step, narrow spiral staircase, reveals a space full of medical and surgical artifacts of all sorts from the 18th century.

From herbs, a small collection of human pathology specimens to a collection of knives, pliers and other horrific surgical tools used pre-anaesthesia, visiting this small museum is undoubtedly an experience like no other.

Know Before You Go

The Old Operating Theater Museum and Herb Garret opens Thursdays through Sundays from 10.30am to 5pm. Access is limited as the space can only hold 40 guests at a time. Adult tickets cost €7.50 while kids between 6 and 16 years pay€4.50. You’ll need to pay $6 for snacks at concessions. Access is free for kids under six years.

Address : 9a St Thomas Street, London, SE1