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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM J L MERROW
Miseratione non Mercede
From Compassion, not for Gain
Even today, with the London skyline dominated by the Eye, the Gherkin and the Shard, our capital is still full of tiny, hidden historical treasures. One of these is The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, in St Thomas’s Street, only a hop, skip and a jump (or, to be more accurate, an escalator ride and a short walk) away from London Bridge Station and the Shard itself.
The garret, in the roof of early eighteenth century St Thomas’s Church, is reached quaintly enough, via a narrow spiral staircase. This leads you up to the museum shop, a tiny room reminiscent of an enthusiastic liaison between an old-fashioned bookshop and a modern child’s Christmas stocking (syringe pens, anyone?) You pay your money, go on up another staircase, and you’re there.
The first thing that hits you is the smell of herbs and spices. Bunches of dried herbs hang from the rafters, and there’s a generous helping of cinnamon sticks on the shelves next to a recipe for Snail Water (if there are any actual snails, though, sadly I missed them). The place is full of displays of surgical implements and specimens in jars, and there’s a poignant children’s corner, with child-sized operating table, hospital cot and a Second World War “Wounded Tommy” doll.
I was keen to see the operating theatre so headed straight in that direction. This was the actual theatre used to operate on female patients from the adjacent St Thomas’s Hospital – the sexes were strictly segregated, although the surgeons, of course, were all male. At least, as far as almost everyone thought…
It’s designed with natural light in mind; a large skylight was put in when this part of the garret was repurposed as an operating theatre in 1822. Theatre, by the way, is exactly what it was: there are stands in a horseshoe shape surrounding the central, surgeons’ area, for the use of spectators. One can only imagine what it must have been like to be some poor patient wheeled in to be operated upon by gentlemen in frock coats, perhaps shielded with a reeking apron steeped in blood and pus from previous unfortunates—because if it was washed, it wouldn’t show how experienced your surgeon was, now would it? All around, dressers and students would jostle for position in the stands. (Apparently, some of them fainted; whether in the crush, or from the grisly spectacle, is a matter of opinion).
Up until around 1846 the patient wouldn’t even have the mercy of anaesthetic; whilst painkilling drugs such as opium were known from medieval times, dosing was an uncertain business and surgeons preferred to do without rather than risk killing the patient with kindness. Hence the need for “dressers”, a quaint name for someone whose chief role was to hold the struggling patient down during the operation. The most popular operations (with the audience, that is) were amputations—in those days, often the only way to survive a compound fracture—and a good surgeon could whip a limb off in a minute or less. Just a short, sharp shock, sir—it’ll be over before you know it!
Talking about those surgeons, by the way…
A picture hangs in the garret of James Barry, a contemporary of Florence Nightingale. She reportedly couldn’t stand him; perhaps she was annoyed Crimean War soldiers nursed by his methods had higher recovery rates than hers, although admittedly his temper was notorious, leading to him fighting more than one duel. He also fought tirelessly to improve conditions for the common soldier and the general poor, which brought him into conflict with his more elitist peers.
He’s the one on the left; the darker skinned man is his servant and close confidant for 50 years, John.
It wasn’t until Barry’s death that he was discovered to have female anatomy. It’s believed he was born Margaret Ann Bulkley, and that his family—including the artist James Barry—willingly colluded in the deception that allowed Barry to become a doctor at a time when it would have been unacceptable for a woman.
Did Barry truly identify as male? It’s impossible to know. But he lived his entire adult life as a man—and a hugely successful and influential one at that.
JL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea. She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again. Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.
She writes across genres, with a preference for contemporary gay romance and the paranormal, and is frequently accused of humour.
Find JL Merrow online at: www.jlmerrow.com
Advent Calendar Giveaway!
The herbs stored in the St Thomas’s Street garret were all used medicinally by the hospital’s apothecary. Nowadays, we tend to think more of herbs and spices as being used to enhance the pleasures of life, whether by their fragrance or their flavour. Is there a herb or spice you couldn’t do without? And how do you use it?
All commenters will be entered into a draw for a copy of Dulce et Decorum Est or, if you don’t mind waiting a bit, a copy of each of Poacher’s Fall, which is an expanded re-issue of my 1920s Christmas story Pleasures with Rough Strife, and the all new sequel, Keeper’s Pledge, due out from Dreamspinner on 30th January 2013.
A winner will be drawn on Christmas Day.
The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this - just save them up for Christmas Eve.)
3. Which fictional character was born on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean?