Dr Death: St Thomas’s Secret Operating Theatre

Guy's and St. Thomas' Hospitals c.1833In the heart of the city of London there lie many secrets and many forgotten histories. A city of such age couldn’t help but have its fair share of grisly secrets hidden in its darkest areas—but have you ever entered the loft area of a house to find an operating theatre from long ago?

Hidden away in the dark attic space of what used to be St Thomas’s church lies the operating theatre that saw hundreds of women go through barbaric surgeries—without anaesthetic—and surrounded by an audience of medical students and professionals. After closing in the early 1800s, the theatre was closed and left unseen until the late 1950s. Many had forgotten about it, and few who did remember its existence wanted to remember it.

It took a man named Raymond Russell, who was researching the history of the adjacent St Thomas’s Hospital in the mid-50s, to unearth the operating theatre. Visiting what used to the church of St Thomas, he found the ladder that led to the attic and climbed into the roof of the church. Even though the theatre had skylights, he found it to be pitch black as the glass in the skylight had been replaced with slates, and the windows had become caked in dirt. The attic was covered with dust and, at some point, floorboards had been removed. When he eventually managed to bring light into the attic, he found that much of the theatre was still intact.

The unfortunate patients who had been operated on in the theatre were almost exclusively those too poor to be treated at home. They would be asked to help pay something towards their care and were all women. They came from the woman’s ward at the adjacent St. Thomas’s hospital.

Thomas_Eakins,_The_Agnew_Clinic_1889It was only beginning in 1846 that doctors of the time were able to use any kind of anaesthetic. Up to that point, the quality of the surgeon would depend on how quickly he could do the operation—some could amputate an arm of leg in less than a minute while some took almost an hour.

The operating theatre was placed in the roof eaves of the church to make it separate from the ward. It was, to some degree, soundproofed and was not ventilated or heated. It was considered to be the perfect place for students of medicine to watch doctors and hone their surgical skills.

You can see the operating theatre today. It’s now a museum, and there are those who say the ghosts of unfortunate patients still linger in the place of their death…


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