Tuesday, January 30, 2007

London's Museums of Health and Medicine

One of the books I enjoy browsing when I want to avoid writing is Mark Fisher’s Britain’s Best Museums and Galleries. During a recent romp through Fischer’s section on London, I was struck by how many London museums focus on medical and health related topics. Further investigations lead me to the website, London’s Museums of Health and Medicine, which provides information about visiting the twenty-one, that’s right, twenty-one medical museums and health-related collections that can be found in this city. I know medicine makes for big business but who would have thought it could also be big entertainment. I immediately called the doppelganger, who comes from a prominent medical family. “How about a day out visiting medical museums?” Most folks would have politely declined. Game as ever, the other Kate was in, and we were on.

We began the morning at the Florence Nightingale Museum on the site of St Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth. I really wasn’t terribly interested in Ms. Nightingale or her story but the museum was open at the right time on the right day in an easy part of town to meet Kate. This was our first piece of good fortune because the Florence Nightingale Museum was wonderful. It’s a small but well thought out place which tells a powerful story about a formidable and enigmatic woman who changed the course of medical history.

For a little longer than an hour, we were equally fascinated and inspired by what Florence Nightingale had achieved and how she went about it. Starting life as a cosseted daughter of a wealthy Victorian family she went on (with considerable resistance from family and friends) to become a national heroine and life long campaigner for hospital reform and the promotion of the nursing profession.

In addition to the well thought out displays, there is an interesting film on her life which runs for 20 minutes which brings the whole story together. Florence Nightingale’s life is a great tale and this museum tells it well. All in all, our medical museum marathon was off to a good start.

After the Florence Nightingale experience, we headed for the attic of an 18th century church near London Bridge which is the home of the Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret. I had heard about this place for years and it sounded completely weird and wonderful. From the moment we began to climb the 32 winding and treacherous stairs to emerge into a gift shop that was a combination of Aladdin’s Cave and my son’s room at University, I knew we had hit pay dirt. Here was another atmospheric London destination, up there with Dennis Severs House, 19 Princelet Street and the John Soanes Museum, all examples of places where the past comes to life.

The story goes like this. The Church of St Thomas Apostle was, in one form or another, the parish church of St Thomas’s Hospital from 1215 to 1862 when the hospital packed up and moved to Lambeth to make way for a railway line. Left behind in the attic of the church were Britain’s oldest operating theatre and an herb apothecary. It is a complex story how an operating theatre ended up in a church attic but suffice it to say, operations in those days relied on a good source of natural light and the church attic was both well lit and convenient as it stood on the same level as the female ward of the hospital. After St. Thomas’s Hospital moved, the theatre remained hidden and largely forgotten until the site was rediscovered in the 1950s.

What the visitor experiences today is a totally gruesome and riveting reminder of how far medicine has come since the days of the old operating theatre when patients were blindfolded, gagged and tied to what looked like a kitchen table with a box of sawdust underneath to catch the blood. Many of the surgical instruments from the time looked like props from a horror movie. Specimens taken from patients, such as huge kidney stones, rotten lungs and gigantic tape worms add to the fun. This place tells it "like it was" without softening or modifying the story for modern sensibilities. I thought it was fabulous but to make sure I was not the only one who found this museum nauseatingly sublime, I spent a long time leafing through the guest book. Most of the comments read something like

“Disgusting, creepy, revolting, fascinating, I loved it.”

The doppelganger liked it too and bought lots of postcards of toe amputations to send to MD relatives. If you have children, they'll love it.

After such a brilliant morning, there was nothing left to do but to go and have a bang-up lunch two minutes down the road at the Tapas Brindisa in Borough Market. We were lucky to get a table and with a no reservations policy, that can be said of everyone in the place. We started with a perfect plate of Iberica de Bellota charcuterie consisting of ham and sausages from the famous Iberian acorn fed pig. We then moved on to squid with aioli, chorizo, clams and ham and cheese with honey. The focus at Brindisa is on ingredients which are excellent. The atmosphere is crowded, noisy and fun. Prices are typical for London which means expensive, especially for tapas. Lunch will set you back approximately £20 per person.

After lunch we took the decision to end on a high and head home. Two museums down, nineteen to go. Watch this space.

Florence Nightingale Museum
St Thomas’ Hospital
2 Lambeth Palace Road
London SE1 7EW
Tel: 0207 620 0374
Fax: 0207 928 1760

Opening hours
Monday to Friday 10 – 5, Weekends and Bank Holiday 10 to 4:30
£5.80 for an adult/£16 for a family

Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret
9a St Thomas’s Street
London SE1 9RY
Tel: 0207 188 2679

Opening hours
Monday to Sunday 10:30-5
Closed 15 December to 5 January
£5.25 for an adult/$12.95 for a family

Tapas Brindisa
Borough Market
18-20 Southwark Street
Tel: 020 7357 8880

Monday to Saturday 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM
On Friday there is a Spanish Breakfast starting at 9


  1. Re.: Medical Museums
    Hi Kate,
    now you know what will be on the menue when we next come to London...
    I would love to get your recommendations and possibly a personal guided tour

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