The Old Operating Theatre Museum is a restored garret hidden away just up Borough High Street. You can only get at it by climbing three flights of mental-steep spiral stairs, which means that – ironically – the oldest operating theatre in Europe can only be reached by the able-bodied, but once up there there’s a perfectly preserved little museum of medical curiosities.
We paid our entrance fee at the front desk, which was barely visible beneath the mish-mash of gift shop merchandise piled haphazardly on every possible flat surface – everything from dog-eared vintage anatomy volumes to rhinestone-studded skull piggy banks and those cuddly blood molecules you find in science museums – and carried on up to the exhibition. The heady scent from the big bowls of medicinal herbs and spices smacks you violently in the face the second you go inside, so be prepared for that.
Of course we went immediately for the cases of sharp and mysterious objects to look at the bone-cutting saws and other amputation paraphernalia, which if nothing else made us feel really fucking glad we live in an age where the best cure for an ingrown toenail isn’t just to lop off the whole toe with the sharp end of a hammer.
Amongst the other displays were some pickled organs, a shit-tonne of weird callipers, a nineteenth century pill-rolling machine (with a lump of Play Doh for wannabe pharmacists to experiment with) and dozens of laminated information sheets chronicling the unhappy tales of Victorians who for one reason or another had had various bits sawn off and all sorts of other dreadful things in the name of self-preservation. The actual operating theatre is also there for visitors to inspect, including some helpful posters depicting
victims patients screaming their heads off while a team of surgeons laid the foundations of modern medicine.
The herbal scent is pretty potent, especially on a hot day, but if you can get past that the Old Operating Theatre Museum a fascinating (albeit morbid) place to spend an hour or so, especially after inhaling some sort of monstrous sandwich at Borough Market just over the road. If nothing else, we left with a lot more love for the NHS and vowed never to bitch about prescription charges again.
Admission: £6.20 for adults, £5.00 for concessions and £3.50 for children.
The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret, 9a St Thomas St, London SE1 9RY.
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in Islington and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.