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Art and Amputations: Part One

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

The Old Operating Theatre in central London is a not-to-be-missed attraction for anyone with an interest in the history of medicine and surgery. It's also highly recommended for those with a taste for the offbeat and macabre. It is absolutely mandatory if you are a fan of the television series The Knick, which aired half a decade ago or so. I check all three boxes, but anyone who isn’t overly squeamish will find fascination in this unusual experience.

The Old Operating Theatre was once an annex to St. Thomas’ Hospital in the attic of the church next door. Unlike NYC’s Knickerbocker which is no longer organizationally extant (the building is still there), St. Thomas’ lives on but in a modern facility a mile distant from the original site. We are fortunate that the operating theatre has been preserved more or less in its original configuration. You still must climb a spiral staircase so steep that clinging to a rope is required to make the ascent. When you reach the top, you enter a museum chock-full of historical medical curiosities and, one imagines, more than a few ghosts of those who didn’t leave the operating table with their life intact.

This operating theater, and many others like it across nations and centuries, was not a place of ordinary entertainment. It was rather the location of serious study—medical professionals instructed students and their professional peers through demonstration and live commentary. Mixed in the audience may have been the merely curious as well. They all witnessed what modern-at-the-time medicine could accomplish with a sharp blade or a fine-toothed saw and a strap of leather to bite down on. Alas, at the time, those instruments were unlikely to be sterilized, but lives that would have otherwise been lost were saved, at least occasionally. Often the patient bled out on the table or died of sepsis in the days that followed, but not all. And those successes were not miracles, but the product of science, as imperfect as it was.

Surgery was a brutal business in the mid-nineteenth century, but that just makes its practice all the more heroic. Do no harm notwithstanding, progress has always required individuals who can tolerate failure and still carry on. Standing the the operating theatre, you can think of the lack of anesthesia and be horrified at how painful life could be in the not even distant past. But there is a more cheerful view—you can imagine those who went home to their families and children, minus a limb perhaps, but alive nonetheless.

All photos copyright 2022 Kirk Samuelson


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