Regency Surgery - Not For the Fainthearted!
I often think that the Regency would be a wonderful period to live provided I had a lot of money, no social conscience and the best of health. The unpleasant consequences of being unwell were brought home forcibly the other day when I visited the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret at St Thomas’s Hospital in Southwark. (http://www.thegarrret.org.uk/)
In 1703 St Thomas’s church was built as part of the hospital and the roof space was taken over by the hospital’s apothecary to dry and store herbs and to make up remedies.
Amongst the less appetising cures is Snail Water, used as a remedy for venereal disease. The recipe is as follows:
Take garden snails, cleansed and bruised, 6 gallons
Earthworms washed and bruised 3 gallons
Of common Wormwood, Ground Ivy and Carduus [cardoon] each one pound and a half
Pennyroyal, Juniper-berries and Fennelseeds each half a pound.
Cloves and Cubebs [pepper-like berry] bruised, each 8 gallons
Keats was an apothecary student here and opposite the church is the site of his lodgings. He qualified but never practised.
St Thomas’ was a charitable hospital so most of its patients were too poor to pay for medical treatment. Anyone who could afford it would be treated at home, including having surgery performed, and, in the absence of any understanding of the causes of infection, this was probably a wise choice.
Patients were strictly segregated by sex, even when they were operated on. The men’s operating theatre does not survive, but in 1822 part of the roof space of the church was converted into an operating theatre for women. The entry then was through a now closed door and not, I was relieved to discover having climbed them, by way of the steep and narrow winding stairs that are the only way into the garret these days.
It must have been a terrifying experience to face surgery with no anaesthetic and in the midst of a crowd of students all craning to see what was going on.
The museum’s information sheet quotes surgeon John Flint South (1814)
…the first two rows…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 were continually pressing on those before…There was also a continual calling out of “heads, heads” to those about the table whose heads interfered with the sightseers…
As well as the blood-loss and pain there was a terrible risk of infection. The surgeon would operate in his ordinary clothes, merely changing his coat for another kept just for operations and rarely cleaned or changed. You can see an operating coat hanging by the door in the first view down into the theatre.
It was a relief to creep carefully down the twisting stairs in the church tower and escape into the foodie haven of Borough market, although oddly, my appetite was rather poor!