The Operating Theatre (operating or emergency room) is found in the attic of an English Baroque Church dated to the 18th century. At first glance this placement seems bizarre, but the wards of the South Wing of St. Thomas’ Hospital were built around St. Thomas’ Church.

Dorcas was the women’s surgical ward. Before 1822, the women were operated on in the ward – this must have caused some considerable distress.

In 1815 the Apothecary’s Act, which required apprentice apothecaries to attend at public hospitals, meant that hordes of students poured in to watch operations.

Placing the Theatre in the Herb Garret of the Church provided a separation from the ward. It gave a separate entrance for students, and afforded a measure of sound proofing. It was also approximately at the same level as the women’s surgical ward which aided the transport of patients to the theatre. The operating theatre was purposely built to maximise the light from above, with a large skylight. Although not heated or ventilated, it provided an ideal, albeit small, area for demonstrating surgical skills.

Until 1846, surgeons had no recourse to anaesthetics and depended on swift technique (surgeons could perform an amputation in a minute or less), the mental preparation of the patient and alcohol or opiates to dull the patient’s senses. Thereafter ether or chloroform started to be used. The Operating Theatre had closed down before antiseptic surgery was invented. The majority of cases were for amputations or superficial complaints as, without antiseptic conditions, it was too dangerous to carry out internal operations.

Learn more about the history of St. Thomas’ by following one of our links below.

The Foundation of St Thomas’ Hospital.

St Thomas’ Hospital & The Reformation.

St Thomas’ Hospital in the 17th and the 18th centuries.

St Thomas’ Hospital in the 19th century.

St Thomas’ Hospital and the move to Lambeth.

St Thomas’ Church.

The Rediscovery of the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret.


Sources about St Thomas’ Hospital


Cock, F.w. 1911. University College Hospital Magazine 1, 127.

Feltoe, C.L., ed. 1884. Memorials of J.F. South.

Golding, B. 1819. An Historical Account of St Thomas’ Hospital.

Le Gros Clark, F. 1863. Outlines of Surgery.

McInnes, E. M. 1963. St Thomas’ Hospital.

Russell, Raymond. 1957. The Old Operating Theatre at Old St Thomas’ Hospital. Survival of an Early Nineteenth Century Theatre.

Siena, Kevin Patrick. 2004. Venereal Disease, Hospitals and the Urban Poor: London’s “Foul Wards” 1600-1800. Rochester (NY).

The Lancet, November 1823 &March 1824.

Woodward, John. 1974. To Do the Sick No Harm: A Study of the British Voluntary Hospital System to 1875.

Online resources

The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret (Archived Website)

London Lives, 1690-1800

Florence Nightingale Museum

London Museums of Health and Medicine