Ye Olde Heart Surgery

I paid a visit to the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret last night, for a fascinating lecture entitled Blood, Hounds and Hearts: London’s Hospitals and the early years of cardiac surgery by Thomas Morris.

It caught my interest mainly because of my dad’s heart transplant back in 2008, but also, as a Londoner, I was surprised I hadn’t been there before.

Anyway, the TL;DR of early cardiac surgery is: there was none.

Doctors and surgeons believed for the longest time that the heart was too delicate to operate on – if you tried to interfere, it would stop and your patient would die.

Medicine cabinet at the Museum

Before the invention of anaesthetics surgery was, to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short: you went in, did your work and got out fast, if only because your patient, held down by a team of strong men would be begging you to stop.

Even once anaesthetics became common the heart is sealed securely away behind the ribs, so there was no easy and quick way to get to it. Even if you did get in there the damn thing would be beating and squirting and nigh-on impossible to get a hold of.

Morris gave us some heroic tales of very early, very basic attempts at cardiac surgery, all performed in either desperation or under a unique set of conditions.

You think surgeons today have a steady hand and nerves of steel? They’re nothing compared to some early practitioners!

Go and visit the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret, it’s a fascinating place by itself. Entrance is via a narrow, spiral stairway that goes up and up and up…and then up some more.

Once you’re in, it’s a lovely wooden space that smells exotically of herbs and spices, thanks to the exhibits of early medicines and preparations.

It’s not a big place – you’ll probably only need 40 minutes to see everything – but the convenient location just outside London Bridge station makes it a fascinating place to while away some time if your train’s delayed.



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