Old Operating Theatre Museum London

A Museum Story

It was Sunday morning. For the first time in a while, the sun was shining in London. As I came around the corner from London Bridge Station I looked up at the scaffolding that by now covered the tower of St. Thomas’ church. I climbed the spiral staircase and went into the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret.

Besides the distant buzzing of cars and people’s comings and goings, the museum was quiet. It was the perfect time for me to prepare for an educational talk that I had to give to a group of Slovenian students later in the day. The topic was one that I had covered plenty of times in the museum tour that I give on Sundays: the history of the museum and an introduction to Victorian Surgery. Nevertheless, this time the talk was going to be slightly different, since for the first time I was going to use our object handling tools to make a “demonstration” of how Victorian surgeons would have dealt with a compound fracture. I have to say that I was really excited. I had the tourniquet, the knife, saws and the suturing thread at the ready. All that remain was to wait until the group showed up.

The students came at 1 pm. They were a lively group of teenagers age 12 to 16. Teenagers are always a tough crowd to please no matter what you do. This time it was not going to be any different, or so I thought. The students went inside the museum talking to each other in Slovenian. Some of them had curious expressions on their faces, others seemed to be unimpressed with what they saw. Still, as the students gathered around the hemicycle of the operating theatre, I saw a couple of visitors joining the group. Two of them caught my attention. An elderly mother and her daughter who sat with such expressions of excitement and anticipation that I felt mirrored my own. It was good to know that at least I was going to reach two people in the audience if the teenagers proofed to be too distracted and uninterested.

As it turned out, I was fretting for nothing. As I began my talk, the Slovenian students and their teachers were engrossed. The history of the building and the history of medicine are really fascinating subjects. When I finally arrived at the “demonstration” of a Victorian surgical procedure, I asked for a volunteer. Immediately I got a feisty dark haired girl with lots of energy who rapidly agreed to lay in the surgery table. As I went through the motions of an amputation I could see the horrified looks in some of the students’ faces. Then some of them looked distressed after they found out about the poor hygiene conditions, and how patients were more likely to die from an infection than from the surgical procedure.

The Nightwatch Overtaking the Body Snatcher by William Austin, 1773. London, Wellcome Library.

I finished my talk and asked if there were any questions. Surprisingly, I had several which involved how long did surgeons had to train for and how they learned about anatomy. The latter of course led to an interesting discussion on bodysnatching and what that meant for the family of the stolen corpses on the one hand, and what it meant to the advancement of medicine on the other. The lack of available corpses made it really difficult for medical students to learn anatomy. For religious reasons people were not too ready to donate their body to science back in the day, and some students had to resort to more disreputable means to obtain that knowledge–like purchasing corpses. It turned out to be a great discussion and the Slovenian students and teachers seemed to leave happy with their experience at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret.

As I started to pack our object handling items, the elderly mother that I mentioned before approached me. She grabbed my arm and said, “Thank you so much! I just wanted to let you know that my mother donated her body to science. I was never comfortable with her decision, but listening to you today help me made peace with her choice. We buried her two months ago, after three years.” I was moved by her words and by her sincere gratitude. When I started my day I could not have even fathom that my talk would have such a positive effect on the life of one of our visitors. Her story humbled me and it made me realize how important our job in the museum really is, how we can connect with our visitors, and how they can connect with us. I am looking forward to continue listening to more of our visitor’s stories.


Monica Ann Walker Vadillo has a Ph.D. in the History of Art and an insatiable curiosity for history in all its forms. She is currently the digital manager and social media strategist at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter @MonicaAnnWalker.

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