Europe’s oldest surviving operating theatre

By Claudia Sacrest

London, Jan 31 (EFE).- Europe’s oldest surviving surgical theatre, nestled in London’s busy streets, is marking 200 years since its first patient was treated with no anesthetics nor antiseptics.

Tucked away in the attic of a church adjacent to the original Saint Thomas’ hospital, the women’s theatre was built in 1882, 67 years after the men’s one, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and plunged women into the workplace.

“Suddenly there were many more women in need of surgical interventions, exactly the same as those of men,” Monica Walker, curator of the forthcoming exhibition at Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret , tells Efe.

A modest wooden amphitheater was erected in the church’s attic connected to the main hospital through a door to deal with the growing number of injuries.

To mark the theatre’s 200 year anniversary, visitors will be able to learn about the fascinating place through true stories that have been unearthed of surgeons, nurses, medical students and patients that worked, studied or found themselves on the operating table.

Skeletons, atlas books on human anatomy, knives used for amputations and 18th-century tools are on display.

Viewers can imagine how final-year medical students would gather in the atmospheric amphitheater around the operating table perched in the middle of the room.

All sorts of procedures would have been done publicly, including limb amputations, mastectomies, lithotomies (removal of bladder stones) and trepanations (drilling a hole into the skull to treat head trauma).

“Students would have arranged themselves around the chamber and would have been wearing their everyday clothes,” Walker added.

“Many of them would have come with cigarettes, smoking was allowed inside the operating room. You can imagine that this space would have had a lot of smoke,” she said.

Hygiene was not high on the surgeon’s agenda.

They did not wash their hands before operating on patients and reused their blood-soaked aprons, a hallmark of a prosperous career to be worn with pride.

According to the museum’s investigations, these were the conditions that Elizabeth Raigen, 60, would have surely encountered when she entered the operating chamber at noon on April 29, 1824 to get a leg amputation conducted by Dr. Travers using natural light pouring in through the roof skylight.

She had been admitted to Saint Thomas’ Hospital ten days earlier with an open fracture of the tibia and gangrene which would lead to death if left untreated.

With no anesthetic, Raigen endured twenty long minutes of an operation that was usually done ten times faster in around two minutes.

The Lancet medical journal later published that Raigen emerged from the operating room alive.

“The brandy and wine administered to her revived her a little,” the journal noted, but she lost her life three days later.

Much to most people’s surprise today though, more patients survived after a stint on the operating table – two out of three – at the old Saint Thomas’ hospital. EFE


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