Time Travelling Operating Theatre – Science Museum

Described as an “immersive live theatre performance”, I was immediately attracted to an event at the Science Museum called Time Travelling Operating Theatre, which purported to offer insight into what operating theatres were like in 1884, 1984 and 2014. I do love immersive theatre, and despite my inherent squeamishness I have an interest in the history of science and medicine, so I really wanted to attend this free event.

The event was organised by Imperial College Centre for Engagement and Simulation Science. When I got there I began to wonder if it was in fact aimed at medical professionals and students – attendees had to fill in a questionnaire and from the conversation around me I gathered that many other people there had a vested interest in the subject matter. Having said that, I later discovered that there were plenty “ordinary” members of the public present, though the “immersive theatre” aspect was not what I expected. Nevertheless, I did find it incredibly interesting and worthwhile.

We watched three surgical re-enactments, each using genuine medical professionals along with authentic sets and costumes. The Victorian-era operation, set in 1884, was perhaps the most interesting to me, as it’s a time I am especially interested in. During this period, internal operations were in their infancy, owing to the relatively recent introduction of anaesthetics; administering pain relief was still a far from exact science and the anaesthetist, usually an assistant rather than a specialist, would have to keep careful watch on the patient to establish how much to give. Anaesthetics were given via a cloth placed over the patient’s mouth. Operations would usually take place in the patient’s house; the set was an ornate room lined with bookcases, and to modern eyes looked both oddly homely and appallingly unhygienic. After visiting the Old Operating Theatre Museum near London Bridge a few weeks ago, this fitted in nicely, exploring the post-anaesthetic stage of surgical history.

By 1984 things had moved on considerably, and operations took place in hospital, with surgeons gowned and equipment sterilised. The kind of operation we were watching – the removal of a gall bladder – was still performed via open surgery, which involved one large incision. However, conditions were much more hygienic and this sort of operation was relatively straightforward with a high success rate.

Interestingly, the professionals performing this re-enactment were those responsible for advances in keyhole surgery, the technique demonstrated in the 2014 scenario. Keyhole surgery is much less invasive and means a much faster recovery time. Here, computer screens helped the surgeon complete the operation via much smaller incisions, using long instruments which did not require first-hand viewing of the area to be operated on. Masks were no longer worn, most instruments were single-use, and robes were blue instead of green (they don’t look so bad when covered in blood, apparently). The patient’s vital signs were monitored via a computer, and the job of the anaesthetist was much more specialised, measuring the correct dose of drug for each patient. I was surprised by how noisy this particular room was, with chatter from the professionals present, music, and mobile phones all in evidence.

One of the interesting aspects which came out of watching all three re-enactments was the roles of the various medical personnel involved. In the Victorian era, the roles were distinctly hierarchical with the nurse and assistant following the orders of the head surgeon. There were still elements of this by 1984, but by 2014 the structure was much more democratic, and the atmosphere of the operating room much more relaxed. Music was allowed, talking was more common, and staff kept in touch with the outer world via modern technology such as mobile phones.

Surprisingly, although, as I have mentioned, I am incredibly squeamish, I didn’t have any problems observing any of the surgeries, even though they were very realistic. Perhaps I was just interested, or perhaps the scenarios were so clean and “ordered” that I found it hard to relate them to the things that normally make me feel queasy.

After observing all three scenarios, there was a discussion with clinicians, historians, medical ethicists and policy-makers that included attendees at the event. It examined surgical ethics – such as the element of patient choice – and I found it really enlightening. To date, I’ve been lucky enough not to need surgery in my life (unless having several teeth taken out of my tiny mouth via general anaesthetic as a pre-teen counts…) but after attending this event I feel much better-informed, and if I were to need surgery in the future I think I would be much less apprehensive about it.

This event wasn’t really what I was expecting, but I still felt that I got a great deal from it. I would recommend it to anyone with any interest in the history and future of surgery, whether you have professional medical knowledge or are a lay person with no relevant experience at all.

BDA Dental Museum

Entrance to the BDA

In London on a weekday with time to spare, I decided to head to the BDA Dental Museum, a small museum located in the headquarters of the British Dental Association not far from Oxford Street. The museum aims to explore the history of dental care in the UK, and has over 20,000 items, making it the largest collection of dentistry-related material in the UK.

I owe a great deal to dentists – I spent a great deal of time at the dentist’s and the orthodontist’s as a teenager, as I had an extremely awkward set of teeth that insisted on growing on top of each other in a mouth that was really too small for all of them – a bit like an Underground train during rush hour, except that Tube trains don’t tend to get random commuters popping out of the roof. I spent three years with a fixed brace but ended up with normal straight teeth, so it was worth it. After visiting this museum, I am even more thankful that I was not born a hundred or more years ago when dentistry was in its infancy.

The Museum began in 1919 with a collection of dental instruments donated by Lilian Lindsay, the first woman to qualify as a dentist in the UK. These days, the collections comprise photographs and archives, art, furniture and a variety of dental instruments and equipment. Originally designed specifically for BDA members, it was opened to the public in 1967 and redesigned in 2005.

The museum is small, consisting of one main room plus a handful of display cases in the foyer of the BDA itself and in the basement. When I visited, the basement display consisted of information about dentistry during World War I: dentistry was not classed as a reserved occupation, despite the fact that dental health was considered important for all-round health. Upstairs, the foyer displays were concerned with the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, looking at the fact that many dentures were made from the teeth of soldiers who died in the battle.

The Museum

The permanent museum, which traces the history of dentistry as a distinct profession, can be found in the small room on the left as you enter the BDA building. It has interesting displays with accompanying information boards, exploring the treatments people used for dental ailments in centuries past and the eventual establishment of the BDA, which ensured recognition of the dental profession. During the nineteenth century in particular, anaesthetics were introduced, new instruments were invented (such as drills) and materials used to make dentures were improved. I was interested to see the different kinds of drills on display as well as the rather posh red upholstered dental chair, though I’d still rather have the stark, slightly boring decor of a modern dentist’s surgery with all the modern treatments that it entails! One particular character mentioned several times was John Tomes (1815–1895) – he was instrumental in transforming dentistry from a trade to a respected profession, and with James Smith Turner was responsible for the Dentists Act 1878, which ensured the registration of dental professionals.

There are a couple of screens on which you can view old, rather amusing dental videos. There is also a tiny gift shop, where you can buy things such as tooth-shaped push pins and toothpaste keyrings.

With its odd opening hours, small size and specialist collection, The BDA Dental Museum is unlikely to be anyone’s first choice for a museum visit, but if you are in the area at the right time I’d urge you to go. If nothing else it will give you an appreciation for modern dentistry!


Address: British Dental Association, 64 Wimpole Street, London, W1G 8YS

Website: bda.org/museum

Opening Hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 1pm-4pm

Prices: Free

The Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret

Entrance to the museum on St. Thomas Street

After the slightly lurid experience of The Clink my friends and I headed to the other museum we were interested in, The Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret. This small museum, which was boarded up for years and only rediscovered 50 years ago, is located near London Bridge station – handily opposite the pub we found to have lunch in. As the oldest operating theatre in Europe, it is a unique little museum and I had been meaning to come for some time.


The operating theatre’s location in the roof of a church seems odd, until you consider that St Thomas’ Church was originally alongside St Thomas’ Hospital, now demolished. The wards of the South Wing were built directly around the church, with the operating room encroaching into the church roof. Before 1822, when the theatre was built, women (men had a different ward and operating theatre) were operated on in the ward itself, which must have been highly unpleasant for all involved.

In 1815, the Apothecary’s Act stated that apprentice apothecaries must attend at public hospitals; this led to hundreds of students watching operations in this and other nearby theatres. Anaesthetics were only introduced in 1846, by which time this operating theatre had closed down. Therefore it is unique in representing a late stage in the history of surgery before anaesthetic.

When St Thomas’ Hospital moved to Lambeth in 1862, the Operating Theatre was partly dismantled and the entrances were blocked up. Despite minor references in academic publications, it was largely forgotten until 1956 when a researcher, Raymond Russell, decided to investigate. Following his discovery, a fundraising plan was launched to restore the space, which was officially opened in 1962.

My Experience
Inside the Operating Theatre

Entrance to the museum is not for the faint-hearted or the mobility-impaired. You have to climb up a spiral staircase, located in the church tower, to reach the tiny foyer and gift shop. We had arrived in time for the 2pm Saturday talk, Speed Surgery! – a demonstration of surgical techniques in the nineteenth century – which I’d booked in advance via email as advised on the website. It wasn’t as busy as we – or the staff – expected, possibly because the weather outside was lovely and everyone was out enjoying the sun.

2015_0815OldOperatingTheatre06The talk was fascinating, and covered many aspects of surgery before anaesthetic and germ theory. We learned that most surgeons did not wash their hands before operating, and wore aprons that were covered in blood from repeated use. We also examined the operating table, with grooves to catch the blood and boxes of sawdust underneath to absorb the gore. Trainee surgeons could watch and observe operations – in the absence of anaesthetic, a surgeon had to be fast in order to cause the minimum amount of pain possible. While surgery in general was dangerous and had a low survival rate, some minor operations, such as the removal of gallstones, were performed with good rates of success.

Operating table

We were shown a variety of surgical instruments – these were fearsome-looking, though well-made: surgeons would often have a set of instruments made specially which they would carry around in a velvet-lined case. Beautiful, sure, but not particularly hygienic. I knew some of what we were told as I had studied the “Medicine Through Time” module way back in my GCSE days, but some of it I had forgotten, and I learned some new things too.

The back of the theatre

During and after the talk we had the chance to admire the operating theatre itself, which was tiny and neat. Entrance was originally through the door at the back, now boarded up, which led to the hospital – not the spiral staircase, which is reassuring. This was the theatre for women – the men were operated on elsewhere. In the absence of electric light, this operating theatre, like many of the period, was located high up with large skylight windows, allowing for maximum natural light.

The garret

The museum itself has many interesting exhibits to do with the history of surgery and of the building, including fascinating photos of the area in the 19th and 20th centuries, and pictures of similar surgeries. There are numerous surgical instruments on display, as well as anaesthetic equipment and a section on children’s medicine, including a record of deaths in the area.

Weighing herbs

The “Herb Garret” aspect of the museum refers to the fact that when St Thomas’ Church was rebuilt in 1703, the large garret in the roof space was used by the St Thomas’ Apothecary to store and cure herbs. When the building was being restored, numerous herbs were found, including four opium poppies packed into the rafters. The exhibition includes many and varied herbs, with notes on what they were used for. There are also some notes on old-fashioned medical remedies – the most bizarre thing I learned was that in “ye olden days”, pregnancy tests were carried out by injecting a frog with the expectant woman’s hormones. If she was pregnant, the frog would lay eggs.

The Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garret is a fascinating small museum that is definitely worth visiting. As well as the talks during museum hours, there are occasional special events – see the website for more details. Please note, however, though the museum has a gift shop there is no refreshment area and there are no toilets – so maybe pay a visit to the pub across the road before you go in!


Address: 9a St. Thomas Street, London, SE1 9RY

Website: thegarret.org.uk

Opening Hours: 10.30am-6pm

Prices: £6.50 adults, £5 concessions, £3.50 children

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men – Museum of London


On Sunday I visited an exhibition at the Museum of London, entitled Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men. It explores the relationship between the trade in dead bodies and the study of anatomy in the early 19th century, and was inspired by the 2006 excavation of a burial ground at the Royal London Hospital, in which evidence of dissection, amputation and anatomical examination was found. I am rather squeamish and was worried that the exhibition would be a bit gruesome for me, but despite a few icky bits I was fine. The exhibition was sensitively arranged and the bones and anatomical models on display were generally presented from a scientific point of view.

Surgery during this period was difficult and dangerous, made even more risky by the lack of anaesthetic. Surgeons needed to develop their knowledge of anatomy and disease, and the best way to do this was by examining and dissecting real bodies. However, demand far outstripped supply. Religious beliefs, superstitions and personal feelings meant that the vast majority of people were terrified at the prospect of their bodies being cut up after death. In addition, they did not want to be equated with murderers, whose corpses were habitually donated after being hanged.

The ‘resurrection men’, or ‘body snatchers’, stepped in, raiding churchyards to provide the surgeons with the corpses they required. They were feared by the population at large: the exhibition displayed an iron coffin used to protect its inhabitant from being removed, and other artefacts designed to prevent grave robbery. This fear is understandable, especially given the publicity surrounding those body snatchers who did not stop short at robbing graves, but actually resorted to murder. Still, the bodies were necessary to the surgeons in order to broaden their knowledge of anatomy, and thus enable them to save lives.

I was interested and surprised to learn, at the end of the exhibition, that there is still a shortage of bodies for dissection at the beginning of the 21st century. Maybe there needs to be some sort of campaign?