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Staff Profiles: Q&A with Karen Howell

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 am Karen Howell.

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

When I first visited the museum I thought it was one of the most interesting in London. I have been privileged to work there for many years now and became the curator in 2003. I monitor the building to make sure it is preserved for the long term and have helped develop the museum’s object collection, events, and education and programme. I try and make the exhibition as interesting as possible and try to align the narratives that are presented by the space and the instruments. I particularly enjoy presenting new events and handling sessions, using or showing the objects connected to the old United Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals’ history. Due to the unusual architecture of the museum, I have also undertaken extensive research on the Herb Garret area, investigating the materials that were used by the old United Hospitals. I did so much work on the plants utilised within the medications used at the old Hospitals that many of the doctors at Guy’s Hospital started to call me the ‘Herb Archivist’.

The Old Operating Theatre. Photo: MAWalker Photography.

Why the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret?

The museum is a rare one, a true one-off for London. As an authentic surviving hospital, its dual nature allows us all an unusual but intriguing engagement with the sometimes severe life-saving health care that was undertaken in the past. By engaging with the history of the old Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals, we find the tales connected to both the patients and staff, by which we can appreciate the incredible stories and bravery that allowed the developments we can sometimes take for granted today. These medical narratives are sometimes uplifting with successful outcomes, but the high death rates connected to surgery undertaken in the pre-hygienic era can allow us to feel more fortunate that we now have access to the modern NHS hospitals’ expertise, giving us a deeper awareness and sensitivity to the importance of the great and free health care that we all share today.

Have you always been interested in the History of Medicine?

I was trained at Chelsea College of Art as a video and installation artist and undertook postgraduate work at Central St Martins School of Art, London and throughout my training I always had the history of medicine as a core interest. It was only after joining the museum I undertook my museum studies training at Leicester University.

I have always had an interest in anatomy and am interested in how we deal with our fascination and sometimes fear of the/our body. I saw Dead Ringers by David Cronenberg (who was apparently interviewed a long time ago next to the museum’s 1890s metal operating table that was used at the old Evelina Hospital for Children) and along with reading The Birth of the Clinic by Michel Foucault I never looked back. I have always seen the museum as a (strange wooden) gem set within the history of medicine.

William Cheselden performing a dissection, c. 1730. London, Wellcome Library.

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

I am a big fan of the surgeon William Cheselden (1688-1752). He was one of the first St Thomas’ practitioners to request the building of operating theatres within the Hospital so that operations could be observed by medical students for teaching purposes. Cheselden had broken his arm as a boy and fortunately had it set successfully by a surgeon and this was perhaps why he applied himself so thoroughly to improve surgical techniques to the patients’ needs. For lithotomy, after a research visit to Paris to try to improve the operation to remove bladder stones, Cheselden imported new methods and reduced his operating time from forty minutes down to one. He achieved a survival rate of 92% without anaesthetic or antiseptic practice. This high survival rate was ongoing for St Thomas’ Hospital and it was perhaps due to his revised operation techniques, as well as his excellent teaching methods, that the operating theatres became such a successful ongoing resource for medical students. The male theatre of St Thomas’ Hospital was known to have a bust of him in it, which I am not sure was the most hygienic move. He was also controversially caught and reprimanded for dissecting a corpse in his own front room, which I think shows application beyond the basic requirements (see the painting to left – although unnamed at the time his identity was known via the red silk cap that he wore).

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

Sir Alexander R. Simpson (1835-1916). Object number LDOOT2008:030RI.

I have two favourite exhibits at the moment. One of the most significant exhibits within the museum for me is the specimen (half) section of a human brain. It is a fragile exhibit that allows contemplation on many levels. To be able to see pathology that has been so generously donated by patients and their relatives is a privilege that allows us all, from any age, to better understand what a complicated, yet apparently simple working anatomy we all share.

At the moment my other favourite exhibit (which has been in the museum’s store for a while) is the plaster figure of Sir Alexander R. Simpson (1835-1916) (object number LDOOT2008:030RI). Sir Alexander was a doctor, nephew of the more famous Sir James Young Simpson (1811-1870). He succeeded his uncle in the chair of James Simpson at the University of Edinburgh following the former’s death. In the image it is, of course, the detail that I thought was the most intriguing: a marvellous commemorative image for the meaning of the history of anaesthesia, and what a true relief that introduction was for us all.

What would you say the role of the museum is?

The museum’s role is to provide access points that allow us all, at any age, to engage freely with the fascinating medical stories of the people and events connected to the old Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals. Via the museum’s events, collection and historical papers we can learn more about the surgical operations (why, for example, there was need to amputate a limb quickly to save the patient from pain) or just how a painful chilblain might be treated by a plant-based or chemical application. Perhaps an empathic understanding of medical history can also help us find our ‘patient’s voice’. The shape of the theatre (it is set in the round) is like a forum that can provide us with an engagement with the sometimes worrying but ultimately fascinating realities of the limitations of the medical care in the past but also, of course, its great successes. Knowing that anaesthetics and hygienic procedures did arrive to become an integral part of our own health care can lead us to more enthusiastically celebrate this rare surviving architecture.

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

The Old Operating Theatre was closed in 1862 and remained undiscovered for nearly a hundred years until it was rediscovered in 1956. If the skylight over the old Theatre were to be rebuilt as it once was so that it reached a slightly higher point on the church roof (as seen in some illustrations), it is likely that it could be seen again from outside at the street level. If we could see the Old Operating Theatre skylight from the street, it is likely that it would never disappear from the public gaze again and so always be kept at the forefront of our minds.

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

One day a woman who had kindly been listening to my talk on how bladder stone removal had been undertaken within the old United Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals, asked if she might ask a personal question. She gently reported that many years ago she had gone to a London hospital and had undergone an operation for the removal of her gall bladder. All had gone well, but unfortunately, to the day I met her, no one had ever explained to her where her gall bladder actually was. This had consequently been a great ongoing worry for her. I was very pleased to be able to tell her where it had been (near her liver etc.) and she seemed to have been very pleased and at last relieved by this information. Fortunately for us all today, we have wider access to anatomical information and hospital staff are very approachable and will willingly and openly explain anatomy issues. I have even, to my relief, seen small sketch drawings attached to hospital ward notice boards that reassured me that this type of error is one of the past.

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