My Mom used to say I was born in the wrong time.  Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by all things Victorian.

So today I visited the Old Operating Theatre, the oldest in Europe, built in the garret of St. Thomas Church in 1822.  It was built there because the women’s ward of St. Thomas Hospital was built around the church and they used to operate on the women in the ward itself, which as you can imagine would be highly disturbing if you were a patient there - listening to some poor woman scream as she’s having her leg sawn off.  So they built this operating theatre in the attic, and next to it they grew various herbs that they used in their medicines for the patients.  In the 1860s the hospital was moved to Lambeth to make way for a rail station, and the operating theatre was boarded up and forgotten for nearly 100 years until it was rediscovered in the 1950s.

Florence Nightingale started her nursing school here.  Patients were operated on without anesthesia or antiseptic of any kind.  This was before physicians discovered that bacteria causes infection, not bad air.  Before they learned the importance of operating in a sterile environment.  So they’d use and reuse bandages, wear the same bloody frock coat to operate in.  Ugh.

One of the curators of the museum gave us a spontaneous lecture on surgery in the 1800s, and I learned a lot of very useful things I never thought I would, such as, when you are unsuccessful at cutting through a bone with a bone saw, use a bone chipper to finish the job.  And do you know where the term “mad as a hatter” comes from?  Many of the hatters like Christys had their factories in the Southwark area of London, where St. Thomas Hospital resided.  In the 18th century, mercury was used to make the felt for fancy hats.  We now know that mercury is a poison, but not back then.  Workers handling the mercury day after day would develop tics and twitches because mercury affects the nervous system, among other things.  Hence the term “mad as a hatter”!

Speaking of mad, tonight I’m off to see a movie in Henry VIII’s back yard!  Hampton Court Palace screens movies in the gardens, and tonight they’re showing SOME LIKE IT HOT.  Can’t wait.  But I’m glad Henry and Marilyn never met.  He’d probably convince her to marry him and then chop her head off.


07/29/2013 8:21am

The place is just soooo cool. I even loved the old, winding, wooden staircase up to the theatre! London has an amazing number of museums catering to specialty areas of medicine. (E.g., pharmacy, dental, optical, anesthesia, etc.) The British were in the forefront of all those developments in Victorian times!

Btw, I don't think I had heard the etymology of "mad hatter." How fascinating!

07/29/2013 11:40am

I know, I'm OBSESSED with old winding staircases. Always take pictures of them. This staircase had me almost as nervous as St. Paul's, it was so narrow. :)


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