A Night at the Old Operating Theatre

Along St. Thomas Street, just up the road from Guy’s Hospital where I used to work last year and the fancy Shard building, there is a doorway that most people just walk past. Tucked in the corner of that doorway to a restaurant is another door that opens to a spiral staircase that appears to go on for ever and ever. In fairness, it is only 52 steps. But 52 rather narrow, winding and enclosed steps where the only place to hold on is a rope which winds around the middle with you. It’s intimidating, scary and a little exciting. At the top of those stairs is a pretty awesome gift shop I won’t let myself spend too much time in for the fear of also spending far too much money. I would really love a giant plush of a red blood cell, alas my bank balance cannot justify that purchase.

This museum is the Old Operating Theatre of St. Thomas’ Hospital alongside the Herb Garrett. The Herb Garrett is part of the original church of St. Thomas and thought to be the place of storage of herbs and other medicinal plants. All of this sits in the rafters of the church and you would never know it exists from the street. The Operating Theatre is located at the top of another (shorter) set of stairs and is mind blowing. It is set out exactly as the early operating theatres would have been, with viewing galleries round the sides and a central wooden table. It is plain, simple and to me shouts out all of the things it has seen through it’s atmosphere. If you can visit, you should. The museum is open from 10:30am-5:00pm each day apart from Mondays.

Tuesday evening Laura D and I visited as the museum was open and hosting a talk by Bill Edwards. You might remember my mentioning Bill previously from talks on the wax models Joseph Towne at the Florence Nightingale Museum and from the Cellular Pathology meeting at the Gordon Museum. It’s fair to say I always enjoy a talk from Bill, he has a sort of morbid humour I think we share and clearly knows how to keep an audience interested. This particular talk was titled Dealing with the Dead – Sentiment versus efficiency and covered the ways in which the dead have been disposed of ranging from Neanderthal practices right up to modern day more unusual and, oddly, fairly unfamiliar options available.

The first part of the talk was great from my point of view of an ex-archaeologist who has covered lot death practices and enjoyed them from a different perspective. I am familiar with a lot of the different images shown, from bog bodies, mummies of all varieties, death monuments and structures to the more ‘modern’ structures in places like Highgate cemetery which we visited recently. If anything, it was really cool to see that my knowledge of death throughout history was as extensive as what was covered in this talk!

One example that I was not aware of was the Ukok Princess of Russia who was found in 1993 in Siberia. She is believed to be from the 5th Century BC and has some amazing examples of tattoos and clothing preservation that I think are incredible. The images can be found by searching for her on Google and I thoroughly recommend a search just for the awesome tattoos alone.

Another interesting thing that was discussed that I was not really aware of is the Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Sicily. There is a famous child mummy here, the little girl Rosalia Lombardo who more can be found out about here. She is an example of preservation that is breathtaking, she truly does look like she is sleeping. As Bill explained, the land of Sicily is not made for burial with most of the ground being made of hard volcanic rock. The way the locals got around this was to create the catacombs and literally hang people on the walls. Each one wearing their finest clothes. This place just made the bucket list of places to visit and I’m very jealous because Laura D has been there!

Lastly, I would like to leave you with one thought. Bill’s talk finished with a summary of what can happen now to your body once you die. I had no idea so many different things could happen, but I would ask you to consider them in your death plans people. Have a little search and you will find that you can become a number of things from pencils, be used in paint, be put in a bullet, have music made from your DNA and have your ashes scattered via firework. Why be interred when you could go out with a massive colourful explosion? Well, it’s up to you, but it does make me think about what the future of the death industry holds for us. Personally, I still haven’t settled on a final death plan yet but the more ideas I get the more I think it could be really quite a unique experience.

If you get a chance and fancy it, come along to the next event at the Old Operating Theatre on the 26th April. Please don’t be afraid to ask questions or give comments if you have any. I can be contacted via gemmanorburn@icloud.com or on Twitter @gemmanorbs. Thank you for reading and hope you enjoyed it!

MG x

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