Guest Blogger: Mum Edition

Greetings from the UK!  I am so honoured to be allowed to guest blog on Liberte of London!!!

While Liberte’ toiled with her LAST week of classes for her Master’s degree, I trekked all over London going to museums that Liberte’ was a little less interested in… and that would be gross medical museums 😉


The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret

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I found my way (eventually) from our hotel across the city, and across London Bridge (not to be confused with Tower Bridge just beyond) to Southwark and right near the Shard, and arrived at The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret.  It was a total delight!  I chatted up the two wonderful women who staffed the place – thank you ladies!  The most fascinating thing was that it was in the roof of a church and had been part of old St. Thomas’ Hospital which opened in 1703, and this space was closed in 1862 and boarded up and forgotten about for nearly 100 years – and only rediscovered in 1956!

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The entry was treacherous – up a tiny winding staircase.  Upon entry, I received a laminated card with information and explanatory photos.  The entry vestibule with its round, faceted windows was beautiful.  Then – up some more stairs and narrow hallway.

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The space was a real garret – timbered rafters, crowded shelves and window ledges, and many, many glass display units housing all manner of medical paraphernalia!

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For those who don’t know me, a big part of my life revolves around drugs (pharmacist)~ So, the fully stocked herb garret was amazing!  I knew about much of the history of pharmacy and here I got to see some things for the first time.  There was a reproduction pill roller that visitors could touch.  I like that hands on part of a museum.  To make oral solid medication in the past, a paste or dough of the medicinal mixture would be made, then divided up and rolled into snake-like cylinders and placed on the pill roller.  The paddle would break the cylinder into even pieces and then the little “pills” could be smoothly rolled into spheres.  My docent said that they had records of students rolling out 10,000 of one type of pill in a sitting – complaining that they really wanted to do something other than this!

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There were lots of dried ingredients and drawers of herbal remedies, plus fragrant things like rose petals and lavender.  There were a variety of exotic spices and medical ingredients, many in the exotic “cabinet of curiosities” display and in old apothecary jars.  I was shown a portable wooden cabinet with many drawers that housed specially packaged and stored exotica of the day, like coriander seeds.  The cabinet was kept tightly closed because unwelcome guests like insects could reek havoc inside the protected lined drawers in the cabinet and with the contents.

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I hung out among all the pharmacy specimens, but eventually moved on to the nursing area and then the medical and surgical area.  There were a plethora of medical instruments and one could see the refinement over time in the tools of the trade.  There were also displays of medical supplies and diagrams on use of these devices – think urinals, forceps and nursing chatelaines.  This one was beautiful!  Notably for our nurse friends and family, in 1859, Florence Nightingale established her first nursing school at this site – at St. Thomas’ Hospital.

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I then ventured to the Old Operating Theatre!  Imagine that!  Visitors, families and trainees could sit or stand in the raised semi-circle of tiers to watch the goings on at the operating table. The table was a significant exhibit in itself.  At the time in the pre-anaesthesia, pre-Lister, and pre-antibiotic days, patients only went to the hospital and especially the surgery, as a last resort.  Bladder and stone removals (lithotomy), operations of the skull (trephination) and amputations were the popular surgeries of the day.  The operating table had a raised back and shoulder support, which allowed the patient to be more easily pinned down.  It was a low, narrow, short wooden table that had a smaller pull out extension at the bottom end.  This allowed for stowage when they needed the table to be short for the stone removal procedures, or extended for the “good” leg and the short height allowed for leverage when the surgeon braced himself with his knee up on the table and his arm around the “bad” leg.  This hospital was a free hospital and had a pretty good success rate – often due to quick surgeries.  It always gave an amputee a prosthetic leg and not just crutches, unlike other hospitals, which was another measure of its success.

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I had mentioned that I made bitters and recently made tonic syrup for tonic water.  One of the staffers showed me two versions of quinine – and one looked like the brick red quinine powder that I used in my concoction!

Check them out at www.oldoperatingthetre.com or find them on facebook and twitter @oldoptheatre. They even have a hashtag #oldoptheatre!


Rating: 4/5

Pros: Cool story, a historical time capsule, amazing collection, friendly and well informed staff, fun shop, handling collection aka touchable items

Cons: Hard to find, dusty, no access for anyone with mobility issues, family friendly but you must keep a sharp eye on your kids! No cafe


I also went to the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery that had hundreds of jars of preserved specimens, and tonnes of info on surgery and specialization – but alas, no photos.  I did take a side trip on the way back to the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House – for those of you who would like to see beautiful works of art!

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