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“Some People Pass Out” – Inside a Victorian Operating Theatre

“Some People Pass Out” – Inside a Victorian Operating Theatre
   Isaac Parham

In Victorian Britain, the role of a surgeon’s dresser or assistant involved more than simply dressing wounds after the surgeon’s work was done. It often entailed holding the patient down during surgery to stop them jumping off the table and running away during an operation. Why, you might ask, would someone want to escape from their own operation? When you learn more about Victorian surgery practices, you’ll understand why.

These practices are laid bare in the Victorian Surgery Demonstration Talk events that take place weekly at The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. Minutes away from London Bridge, the venue is the oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe, dating back to 1822.

Turning on to a relatively quiet road off the chaotic Borough High Street, I enter the building through a suitably old doorway and climb a hell of a lot of steps, up what feels a lot like the world’s tallest and narrowest spiral staircase. It’s explained by the fact that the theatre is located in the roof space of an old church. 

Arriving at the top after my heroic ascent, I step into the museum section of the venue. It’s a fascinating hotchpotch of apothecary paraphernalia from across the ages (including a lot of medicinal herbs), models of body parts and bizarre surgical implements, which look painful. We later find out that they were.

As we shuffle into the operating theatre for the talk, I’m overwhelmed by a sense of old-world authority and forgotten practices. There are tiered rows of stalls looping around in a circle, so that onlookers (usually including large groups of medical students) could face the main event – the operating table – before gawping at you the whole way through whatever intrusive procedure you might be undergoing.

Almost everything in the room is made out of wood, including the floor and the operating table. Not, you might think, the most hygienic material. And you’d be right.

Even though this particular theatre was only used weekly, as the female operating theatre of nearby St Thomas’ Hospital, it saw its share of grizzly procedures, as our thoroughly knowledgeable and entertaining host and speaker, Gareth Miles, explains over the course of an hour. Throughout which there are “demonstrations” on bravely willing volunteers, though thankfully these are merely illustrative and don’t involve any actual amputations.

Ah yes, amputations. The Victorians loved a bit of limb-chopping – all in the name of good health, of course – and up until around 1846, patients would have to undergo said chopping without any real form of anaesthetic. “Opium and alcohol were sometimes experimented with for pain relief, but these obviously come with their own problems,” Gareth points out.

Anaesthetic or not, the surgery went ahead, and over the course of 60 minutes we’re taken through everything from bladder stone-removal (a common complaint in Victorian times due to the quality of the drinking water) to purging the body of (supposedly) excess liquids. The descriptions are vivid, to say the least – a little too vivid for some, as Monica Walker, the Marketing, Events and Retail Manager of the Old Operating Theatre Museum, explains to me after the event: “The descriptive parts can be a little bit gory and some people pass out. It happens every other month or so and we’ve all become First Aiders to ensure we can take care of them.”

But Monica reassures that the point of these events isn’t to shock people for the sake of it. “The main aim of these talks has always been to contextualise the space, to give people an insight into how it was used and to let them feel the operating theatre as it was meant to be seen.”

Alongside the gore, Gareth also emphasises the skill of the surgeons at work during his talk. Some of them worked miracles in tough conditions, even if those miracles did sound terrifying. Renowned surgeon Robert Liston, for example, claimed he could saw through a bone in 23 seconds, (clasping the bloody knife used in part of the procedure between his teeth to save time), while Michael Dominic Larry (surgeon to one General Napoleon), said that he performed 200 amputations in 24 hours.

Elsewhere, we learn about bone nippers (exactly as painful as they sound), blood-letting, bizarre cures for syphilis (washing the genitals in a mixture of wine and vinegar was recommended), cat guts (not made from cats, but still gross), mercury misuse and wet ox bladders.

Old Operating Theatre

As I leave the theatre – relieved I managed not to faint during the account of exactly how a Victorian surgeon would have amputated an arm – I’m acutely aware of how glad I am not to have had to endure the horrors of surgery back in Victorian times. I’m also acutely aware of just much progress has been made since then. Speaking to Monica later, it turns out the message hit home.

“The event allows people to have a glimpse into the past and see how far we’ve come. Having a space like this as a comparison with our current system lets us see how precious the NHS is and how horrible it would be to lose something like that.”

Wise words indeed and ones that’ll stick with you through these fascinating events. Who knew that you could learn quite so much about society from listening to the intricacies of Victorian bladder stone-removal?

Get tickets for The Old Operating Theatre on Eventbrite.

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