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Staff Profiles: Q&A with Julie Mathias

The front of house staff who welcome you; the people that tell you all about the history of the museum, Victorian surgery and herbal medicine on the weekend talks; the people that take you on walking tours about public health and history of crime in Southwark; the people that catalogue and care for the collection; the people that organize after-hours events; the people that inform you about what is going on; the volunteer who gives up his time to help at the museum…These people make up the living fabric of the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. We are delighted to introduce you to them and invite you to learn a bit more about them and the museum through these Q&A.

-So, who are you?

I thought this was a simple staff profile questioner not a philosophical debate… However, my name is Julie Mathias- will that do?

What is your role in the museum? What do you do? How long have you worked here?

I have worked at the Museum for 8 years. At the moment I am Acting Director but before I was Head of Education. So for the best part of a decade I have delivered hundreds of lectures and workshops to thousands of people of all ages. I love the fact that I see the same teachers return with different students year after year.  

-Why the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret?

Because the place has a spirit that transcends  – and that’s a rarity theses days.

Operating Table from the Evelina Hospital for Children.

Have you always been interested in the History of Medicine?

Not always -until I realised that all history, human and animal, is affected by the perceived health of the beings’ involved.

If you had to choose one object in the collection as being particularly significant to you, which would it be?

The Evelina Hospital for Children.

I have two:

Firstly, the original early 19th century wooden operating table; it may look very basic but beneath the grains lay very complex stories.

Secondly, the Evelina metal operating table; I was a surgical patient in the Evelina Hospital in the early 1970s –so it is possible -or even probable -that I was operated on upon this table. The procedure I underwent was major – so to me- this object represents the fine line between life and death.

Who is your favourite historical figure in the History of Medicine? Who is he/she? Why is he/she important?

Alfred Salter and his daughter Joyce.

I dislike choosing any individual’s achievements over another’s and we should always remember the crucial role that patients always have played in advancing medicine. But at a push I would go with Dr Alfred Salter, a local GP. He, and his wife Ada, were instrumental in the public health improvements made to the people of Bermondsey during the interwar years. If you walk the Thames path on the south side of the River, in the direction of Bermondsey Wall East, there are life size statutes of the Salters including their beautiful daughter Joyce who died aged 7 of scarlet fever.

Has working in the museum changed the way that you see the history of medicine?

Good question, but an even better one for me would be: ‘Has working as a researcher of medical history changed the way you see the Museum?’ The answer to that would be yes! In recent decades social and cultural historians of medicine have stressed that people have always contested the ways their bodies – and the ‘problems’ associated with them- have been categorised by medical professionals. The fascinatingly rich and chaotic Museum collection uniquely reflects this disputed history of suffering, health and healing.

-What would you say the role of this museum is?

Overall, to make a highly complex subject accessible to everyone. Also, I hope it provokes visitors to reflect on their own medical history and to consider -that although there have been definite changes in our healthcare over the centuries  – there still exists a lot of continuity too.

-If you could change one thing in the museum, what would it be?

The climate: warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

-Can you share a memorable experience that you had with one of the many visitors that come to the Old Op?

I have experienced so many disparate memorable moments during the years I have worked at the Museum. But I was very moved  some years ago when I witnessed a woman who had undergone a leg amputation  in childhood, being assisted up the spiral staircase by her partner. She told me after seeing the Operating Theatre that she felt very fortunate…

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