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Staff Profiles: Q&A with Kirsty Chilton

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?

Kirsty Chilton.

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

I am the assistant curator, and have worked in the museum for over ten years. I do lectures, research, help with the displays, and general things.

-Why the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret?

Because it’s the real place and it has a unique atmosphere.

-Have you always been interested in the History of Medicine?

I did Medicine Through Time as part of my GCSE and remember being very impressed by the Ambrose Paré quote “I dressed the wound, but God healed them”. I thought it showed great modesty considering. Then it was a background interest for a while. I started reading up again about the lives of 18th century surgeons and it all went from there.

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

I had a lot of trouble choosing just one. I love the falciform knife (which is displayed just outside the theatre in a wall case). It’s just a big heavy 18th century amputation knife which is heavy in the hand, with a nice weight and a gentle curve on the blade. It’s an emotive object.

Falciform knife. London, The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret Collection.

I also like the dissection hooks and kits. They get into the mechanics of actually practising anatomy in the 18th and 19th century and away from the idealised or detached bodies in many anatomical illustrations.

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

To choose one person is impossible as it doesn’t give credit to all the incredible (and sometimes deeply eccentric) men and women who have been innovative thinkers, practical pioneers, and great teachers.

Portrait of John Hunter by John Jackson after Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1786.

I am going to choose John Hunter, which will not surprise anyone who knows me. Hunter was a towering but complicated character who was curious about everything, was prepared to fail and argue about it, and made ‘try the experiment’ his maxim. He was a very skilled surgeon but was also an inspiring teacher to those with the time for his hesitant lecturing style. His impact was immense, not just in the work he actually did and the discoveries he was involved in, but in the way he influenced future generations of surgeon anatomists (like his admirer and charismatic successor Astley Cooper, of St Thomas’ and Guys). The teaching collection he amassed in his lifetime continues to serve and inspire student surgeons today.

For St Thomas’ and Guys, I’ll be obvious again and choose William Chesleden. Cheselden was a leader in the generation of surgeons anatomists who drove the dissolution of the old company of Barber Surgeons and set up the new College, devoted to scientific surgery and the elevation of the profession. He was also (like Hunter, who followed him) a great teacher as well as a great practitioner.

And of world famous names, you have to mention Vesalius and Paracelsus, who both brought new scientific thinking and made very bold statements which were out of step with the general thinking of their age to bring new attention and energy to their respective fields (anatomy and iatrochemistry respectively).

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

I suppose it has somewhat, in that researching has encouraged me to explore new aspects of the topic all the time.

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

To help people understand what it was like to try to combat disease and perform surgery in the past, and what it was like to be the surgeon, or the physician or apothecary as well as to be the patient. To reveal the way health was understood by people in the past and how the enlightenment and experimental science impacted that understanding. To encourage people to feel appreciation for modern medicine and to consider how the work of historical pioneers actually goes on today.

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

I wouldn’t change anything but I would love to add a dissector’s guide, and an obstetric phantom (teaching figure). Again, these objects are concerned with the actual mechanics of teaching and learning and both were in use at the hospital in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

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