Frequently Asked Questions

Why Build A Herb Garret In The Roof Of A Church?

The parish of St Thomas's Church was restricted to the Hospital and grounds so there was a close relationship between the Church and Hospital. Storage space was normally in basements, attics and garrets. Basements were inappropriate for Herbs because of dampness and rodents. The large oak beams in the Garret act as a buffer and moderate fluctuations in humidity. Experience shows it is a good place to dry herbs. The Apothecary's offices were also further down St Thomas's Street. See the Herb Garret page

Why Build An Operating Theatre In The Roof Of A Church?

When the number of students attending operations became too much for the ward to cope with a special operating theatre had to be built. The women's surgical ward adjoined the Church Garret and as this had long been used by the Hospital it became the obvious place to build an Operating Theatre - close to and on the same level as the ward yet separate enough to dampen the sounds from surgery before anaesthesia! See the Operating Theatre Page

Did The Patients Come Up The Spiral Staircase?

No, there was a hoist in the stairwell to the Women's Surgical ward in Frederick Block (now the Post Office). As the Theatre was roughly on the same level as the Ward in was relatively easy to get patients from the ward to the Theatre and back again. There is a possibility that the Garret itself was used as a recovery ward after 1822 when windows appeared to have been inserted in the Garret for the first time.

Why Weren't There Anaesthetics Before The 19th Century?

There were. People in the Roman and the Medieval periods had access to substances that could knock patients out. The problem was that before experimental work on gases was done by Priestley, Humphrey and Faraday there was no reliable way of dosing patients safely. In other words anaesthesia was not used because it was unpredictable - often killing the patient or not working reliably. Doctors came to the conclusion that it was safer to do without it.

How Quick Was An Operation?

As quick as possible as this was the only way of restricting pain! An amputation might be over in a minute, although an operation for removing a bladder stone might take up to an hour.

How Safe Was An Operation?

Operations were potentially lethal mainly because of the risk of infection. Doctors before the 1860s and the work of Lister did not know that bacteria caused infection. So many patients died from infection passed to them by the Surgeon, his instruments, the watching students or even the operating table itself.

Many different estimates of the death rate exist but the Surgical wards at St Thomas's had about an 11% death rate, although this is an underestimate as not all surgical patients had to be operated on, so a rate of about 20% may be a reasonable approximation.

What Sorts Of Operations Were Carried Out?

Before the advent of anaesthesia, it was not possible to operate in the body cavities of the stomach, chest and skull. Therefore operations were restricted to amputations, wounds, fractures, aneurisms etc. Bladder stones could be removed however by a tricky operation cutting through near the anus.

Were Surgeons Properly Qualified?

It depends what you mean by properly! Before the end of the 19th-century, physicians were trained at University, while surgeons and apothecaries were trained by apprenticeship - in the same way that butchers, bakers and candlestick makers were trained. However, apprentices normally attended lectures, dissections and and operations. In the 19th-century laws were passed to regulate medical training.

'Miseratione Non Mercede' - What Does it Mean?

The inscription in the Operating Theatre is in Latin and can be translated as 'For compassion not for gain.'

Is Everything In The Operating Theatre Original?

The shell of the Operating Theatre is original. The standings are reconstructed, while the furniture was acquired from various London hospitals and is of the correct period. The operating table came from University College Hospital and is made of deal.

Did Florence Nightingale Actually Work In This Operating Theatre?

Probably not, but the famous Training School for Nurses was set up at the Hospital on this site before it moved to its present site in Lambeth.

When Was The Hospital Founded?

St. Thomas's was described as 'ancient' in 1215. It is named after Thomas Becket who died in 1170. It was probably originally part of the Monastery of St Mary Overie which was founded in 1100. So, it was probably built in the 12th Century.

Is St Thomas's The Oldest Hospital In London?

St Bartholomew's Hospital was founded in 1123. If St Thomas's Hospital was originally named after Becket it may not have been built until after his death in 1170 - although it would seem strange to call the hospital 'ancient' in 1215 if it were only 30 years old. The possibility therefore exists that St Thomas's Hospital was founded in 1100 at the same time as St. Mary Overie, which would make it the oldest hospital in London (but try telling that to St. Bart's!).

Did the Hospital Survive The Reformation?

No, the hospital was called 'the bawdy hospital' and closed down despite pleas from the City. However it was reopened by Henry VIII's son, King Edward VI, and renamed St Thomas's - but this time not after the "troublesome priest" but Thomas the Apostle. Tudor spin doctoring?