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?
-What is your role in the museum? What do you do? How long have you worked here?
A factotum for eight years.
-Why the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret?
It’s within walking distance from where I live.
-Have you always been interested in the History of Medicine?
No. I started to enjoy stories like the surgical removal of the cast of a rectum, the result of a concrete enema delivered by a mischievous lover. Perfect in every way, except for the shape of a ping pong ball used to retain the enema in the back passage.
I’d spent too much time in hospital myself to get seriously into the subject when I was young.
-If you had to choose one object in the collection as being particularly significant to you, which would it be?
The blackened lungs.
-Who is your favourite historical figure in the History of Medicine? Who is he/she? Why is he/she important?
Dr Horace Emmett. In 1889, aged 78, he announced in a lecture to the Biology Society of Magdalene College, that he had discovered the elixir of eternal youth: grinding the testicles of red squirrels and injecting himself with the compound. He claimed he was now physically 30 years younger and could ‘visit’ his wife every day without fail.
Two months later his wife left him for a younger man, and shortly after that he died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
Encapsulates the absurdity and tragedy of life.
A few years ago, some ground squirrel testicles in an old apothecary jar popped up on ebay. They went for 40 quid.
-Has working in the museum changed the way that you see the history of medicine?
I’m fortunate to meet and talk to many involved in the subject, and work with some people who are very knowledgeable and clear in their interpretation and reasoning.
-What would you say the role of this museum is?
Talking to people. In a digital age where we’re becoming buried under a weight of information which is being confused with knowledge, wording not being read in context but literally, subjugation by smartphone and evanescent social media, it is very important for us to talk face to face and allow time for serious thought.
-If you could change one thing in the museum, what would it be?
It should be easier to find a safety pin.
-Can you share a memorable experience that you had with one of the many visitors that come to the Old Op?
A midget once crawled up the spiral staircase entrance on all fours, immaculately dressed, singing ‘See You Later Alligator’. I’ve chased a disturbed, untrousered man around the central display case, talked to another man who, midway through the conversation, had ants crawl out of his shirt, and a school boy once challenged me to a fight during a guided walk. I could go on.