Coal hole plate made in Southwark

Lost Industries of Southwark Education Resources

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Using Worksheet 7 - The Operating Theatre



Contemporary Descriptions of Operating Theatres

John Flint South was surgeon to St Thomas's Hospital from 1831 to 1863. In his 'Memorials'' he described the scene during operations in the theatre :

'The general arrangement of all the theatres was the same, a semicircular floor and rows of semicircular standings, rising above one another to the large skylight which lighted the theatre. On the floor the surgeon operating, with his dressers, the surgeons and apprentices of both hospitals, and the visitors stood about the table, upon which the patient lay, and so placed that the best possible view of what was going on was given to all present. The floor was separated by a partition from the rising stand-places, the first two rows of which were occupied by the other dressers, and behind a second partition stood the pupils, packed like herrings in a barrel, but not so quiet, as those behind them were continually pressing on those before, and were continually struggling to relieve themselves of it, and had not infrequently to be got out exhausted. There was also a continual calling out of "Heads, heads", to those about the table
whose heads interfered with the sightseers... The confusion and crushing was indeed at all times very great, especially when any operation of importance was to be performed, and I have often known even the floor so crowded that the surgeon could not operate till it had been partially cleared. After our operations were over, the students rushed down two flights of stairs and across the street to Guy's, to rush up as many stairs and repeat the same scrambling for places and confusion as before. With all this struggling for the best places, it was very rarely any quarrelling occurred; everyone seemed to consider he must put up with the pushing and squeezing if he could only contrive to get a glimpse of what was going on; but the majority had to draw largely upon their imaginations of what they fancied they saw. Of course the importance of the operation and the reputation of the operator had large influence on the number of spectators; and their violent scrambling efforts to gain entrance into the theatre, and their distribution in their proper places often led to severe contests and even fighting with the hospital servants to whom this duty was assigned.'..'

E. A. Barton wrote, about operations towards the end of the 19th century

'...close up to the left hand door in the corner you see a small wash basin about the size of a large soup plate, in which the surgeons washed their hands after -sometimes even before - operating. Alongside the basin is a row of pegs from which hang the operating coats of the staff. These were mostly old frock coats, stiff and stinking with pus and blood. The more advanced, however, after removing their coats would put on a grocer's bib and apron of some non-absorbent stuff. On entering the theatre to operate, the surgeon would take off his coat and don his "operating coat" rolling up his sleeves and turning up the collar over his white linen, to save this from some errant vessel's attention.

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 about 18"x 12"x 4" (5.5 x 3.6 x 1.2 m) deep filled with sawdust. This box can be kicked by the surgeon's foot to anyplace where most blood is running in little gutters off the oil cloth. As the sawdust becomes unable to absorb any more and is converted into a bloody porridge, one hears the surgeon call "More sawdust, Holder," when afresh boxful is placed under the table...
After the surgeon had finished for the day he would wash his hands and forearms, hang up his coat, look at his face in the tiny looking glass, go round hi sward...'



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