Ye Olde House of Pain

No, this isn't the attic from Black Christmas, it's the St. Thomas Chapel and Hospital in London, part one of our medical history tour. The hospital was built here in the early 1100's, although the attic was used for medical purposes beginning in the early 19th century.

Accessed via a claustrophobic and creaky spiral staircase (the chapel's belltower) and admitted by means of a small admission fee, A collection of musty, rusty operating tools and anatomical preparations await, scattered and stuffed into glass cases with little regard for design or didactics. But the real atmosphere is in the Old Operating Theater, just next door:

There were some benefits to having an operating theater in an attic: the doctor who built it had a large stock of medicinal herbs, and the environment accelerated their drying and kept them away from the rats. Also, the thick beams of the ceiling helped to muffle screams from the patient, as these operations were done before the advent of anaesthetics. Keep in mind, this was built as a theater; a show for an audience. It was more education than entertainment, but theater nonetheless:

Patients put up with the audience to their distress because they received medical treatment from some of the best surgeons in the land, which otherwise they could not afford. Wealthy patients of the surgeons would have been operated on, by choice, at home probably on the kitchen table. The risk of death at the hands of a surgeon was greatly increased by the lack of understanding of the causes of infection. Although cleanliness was a moral virtue, descriptions suggest that a surgeon was as likely to wash his hands after an operation as before. The old frock coats surgeons wore during operations were, according to a contemporary, 'stiff and stinking with pus and blood'.

The table was covered with a blanket, over this was a large sheet of brown oil cloth coming well down over the blanket. Beneath the table may be seen a wooden box filled with sawdust. This box can be kicked by the surgeon's foot to any place where most blood is running in little gutters off the oil cloth. As the sawdust becomes unable to absorb anymore and is converted into a porridge, one hears the surgeon call "More sawdust, Holder", and a fresh boxful is placed under the table.

Continue The Tour

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