London’s surgery museums are frightening and fascinating

Ah, the good old days! Everything was so simple a hundred years ago, so stress free. No television, no Britney Spears, no threat of global warming or nuclear war. Life was better then.


Cities choked on coal smoke, people starved on the streets, terrorists blew up innocent people, and the medicine, well. . .

While London has dozens of museums that can tell you about the past, two museums in particular tell you about the hard facts of life more than any other. The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret and the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons give you eye-popping tours through the “good” old days of surgery and medicine.

The Old Operating Theatre is exactly that, Britain’s only intact 19th century operating theatre. Dating to the days before anesthetic and before surgeon’s thought it might be help to wash their hands, it’s a sobering reminder of what our great-great-grandparents had to endure when they got sick. The theatre was in use from 1821 to 1862 and survived only because it got sealed off and forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1957.

The theatre was where surgeons and medical students watched the best doctors of the day cut off limbs, trepan skulls, and perform other operations. Beside the operating theatre, there is a large space reserved for displays of early medical techniques and instruments. Behold the glorious cervical dilator, a multipronged monstrosity that did just what it promised! Or the bone saw, which in the hands of a skilled surgeon could cut through a leg in less than a minute. Or the leeches, which were actually quite effective at getting rid of bruises by sucking the blood out of you.

%Gallery-128964%But it’s not all horror tales. These were primitive days, to be sure, yet doctors really did try to help their patients and herbal medicine was quite advanced. Also, there were innovative minds like Dr. Joseph Lister, who realized that disinfectant could help reduce fatalities after surgery, and Nurse Florence Nightingale, who made huge advances in hospital cleanliness to make patients healthier and happier.

The museum chronicles the efforts of doctors, nurses, apothecaries, and midwives. It’s literally crammed with artifacts and displays and an interested visitor can easily spend a couple of hours here.

An equally fascinating and full museum is the Hunterian Museum. Located in the Royal College of Surgeons, it houses a huge collection of preserved human and animal specimens. If you’ve ever wanted to know what a hernia looks like from the inside, this is where to find out. You can also see the large intestine of a crocodile, Charles Babbage’s brain, an artificially deformed skull from ancient Egypt, and the bones of the Irish giant Charles Byrne.

The main draw are the medical specimens of almost every imaginable malady. To actually see what so many people get is a revealing experience. Upstairs are displays of the history of surgical techniques. Unlike the Old Operating Theatre, this museum takes you right up to the modern day and there are some graphic films of operations such as the removal of a brain tumor and an enlarged prostate. Much of this museum is not for the faint of heart, but while I was watching the brain surgery in horrified fascination one brave little ten-year-old girl plopped down next to me and sat through the whole thing. I warned her off the stereoscopic views of First World War facial injuries, though.

While the “eewww, gross” element to both of these museums is certainly present, they are both very well presented and worth the time of any visitor who wants to learn more about issues that will, sadly, affect them sooner or later. It’s strange that these two museums aren’t better known. I highly recommend them both.