Old Operating Theatre Museum, Southwark
Independent Trust Scope:
Medical history Visited:
pondered for a long while whether to include the Old
Operating Theatre among my featured museums. It isnít a
local museum really (though everywhere is local to
somewhere!), but for sheer bizarre personality it is
hard to match and so Ė rules are there to be broken.
It was July 2018, the hottest day of the year. My day
trip to London had taken me on a long and picturesque
walk from St Jamesís through Piccadilly and Covent
Garden, to Lincolnís Inn and the Temple and finally
across the river to Southwark. I reached the Old
Operating Theatre in early afternoon and once through
the door ascended the winding wooden staircase next to
the swanky bar that now outrageously occupies the body
of what was once the Church of St Thomas; for the
Museum, you see, is crammed into the attic of that
once-sacred edifice. It is an experience like no other.
Would the stairs never end?
Arriving at the reception desk, I did my best not to
pant visibly and took a glug from my water bottle before
plunging into the corridor that led into the displays.
Chaos, apparently, awaited. Bottles, uneasy antique
medical equipment, fading yet still lurid manuals of
surgery, herbs and powders in tubs and pots, lined every
available surface in a sweltering wooden room Ė the Herb
Garret. But the ordeal was not yet over. Up, up, and I
emerged into the final sanctum, the Operating Theatre
itself. Its great skylight, designed to direct light
down onto the table, lensed the razing power of the sun
this July day. The hottest room in London. A lecture in
progress: I sat among the mainly young people and
managed about five minutes before the furnace
temperatures drove me out, and back to the Garret where
the heat was merely appalling rather than impossible.
How the lecturer managed I canít imagine.
The Garret was used by the apothecaries of St Thomasís
Hospital adjoining to store medicines and herbs, and
then in 1822 the Theatre was built in it to avoid female
inmates having to watch fellow patients being operated
on in the ward. Shut up in 1862 when the hospital left
the building, it was not exactly forgotten, but not
visited with any purpose again until 1956. Enough
remained for the space to be restored, the only
surviving 19th-century operating room in
We casually call them Ďtheatresí, but this one really
is. Tiered seating for students surrounds the operating
table, the seat of the drama of life and death. You are
surprised that blood is not evident on the floor, so
much must have hit it over those forty years, and this
dreadful space does not lose its power, its witness,
because of the students in their modern clothes around
After that, the alembics and the bottles and the twigs
and the dried snakes back in the Garret come as a
relief. There is even whimsy to be had here and there.
Back down the wooden stairs, and onto the street, and
itís not right to say youíve recovered: this is a museum
visit you will take with you a long way.