An Incident at the Old Operating Theatre: Is Dark Tourism Right for Me?

Anatomy Doll, Old Operating Theatre and Plague Doctor mask

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Ever since hearing that the Old Operating Theatre in London gives regular talks about old medical practices, it had been high on our list of places to visit in London. Well, I should say it was top of Dagney’s, while I was a bit curious, having never visited a medical museum of any kind before.

What I didn’t expect was for the entire experience to leave me questioning if dark tourism ​was really for me.

A Bit of Preamble

Have you ever passed out? I don’t recommend it. Not only do you lose control of yourself, but there’s a very real possibility of injuring yourself as well. You might hit your head on the way down, or fall from a height depending on where you are. It’s also extremely disorientating, as most of the time it takes a while to realise what’s happened.

It’s not a pleasant occurrence, and if you’re fortunate enough to never have experienced it then I envy you. But if you have, then you’re familiar with what I’m talking about. The hot flush, the light-headed-ness, the sparkly lights starting to cloud your vision. And if it’s not your first time, perhaps something else as well. Namely, the panic that comes with knowing what’s about to (potentially) happen.

I first remember fainting as a child, when I had fever brought on by flu. In the early hours, I got up to get water from the bathroom sink. The sparkles came down, and next thing I know my parents are picking me up off the bathroom floor. Later they told me they heard a bang (which was me hitting the floor) and came to investigate. I do not remember the bang; I do not remember them even entering the room.

The incident was attributed to the illness, and when that passed there were no more episodes. I was relieved it was not a regular thing!

An anatomy doll and large plastic heart at the Old Operating Theatre
Are these the insides of a healthy man?

The next significant time happened while I was living and working abroad in Hong Kong. While at a colleague’s apartment, I passed out while watching a graphic television programme. What made it different from previous times was that I had a mini-seizure. According to my colleague, I had gone white and shaken violently whilst unconscious.

I remember it took a lot longer to come around than before. As I came to, I became aware of him talking to the emergency services on the phone. An ambulance took me to hospital, where I spent a week under observation. The doctors said that, while more serious than last time, this was still not a new recurring ailment.

This one turned out to be nutritional. As an 18-year-old living away from home for the first time, I had not been taking care of myself as best I could and not getting enough vitamins or vegetables. A painful lesson, but one that’s stuck with me ever since.

Now, both of those events took place in private. It’s one thing to lose consciousness in the comfort of your own home, but to do so when you’re at the mercy of strangers is a whole new level of scary.

It’s not always smooth sailing in the world of travel. Especially if you discover that the fit, adventurous person you aspire to be turns out instead to sometimes be weak and feeble. Here’s what happened to me when we visited the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London.

Various items from a cabinet of curiosities such as taxidermy alligators & bottles of chemicals

​Late to the Party

The theatre is located in the attic of the old St Thomas Hospital in Southwark, just south of the river Thames. My aunt lives in London, and had suggested it as a place to visit during our stay. As it’s right down our dark tourism alley, we were enthusiastically on board! The museum holds a weekly Victorian Surgery Talk, complete with surgical demonstration. We made a weekend plan to grab breakfast with her and head over for the Sunday midday session.

As my aunt lives within walking distance of the museum, we decided to make our way there overground. It was a rare day of autumn sunshine and walking seemed much more appealing than getting cramped on the tube.

Unfortunately we didn’t know exactly where the theatre was. London always feels a bit of a maze to me, with its side-streets, alleys and cut-throughs. Think pretty much the opposite of New York’s grid system.

Arriving at the Old Operating Theatre

After a couple of dead-ends and a few unnecessary turns we finally arrived at the ticket office. At least we had pre-booked! Having picked up our tickets we wound our way up a narrow stone staircase to the museum. We rushed through to the theatre, as due to our meandering journey to get here we were running late. On the way I caught glimpses of carefully organised medical instruments and various bits of people in jars.

The presentation had begun, and we awkwardly made our way to the only available seats (at the front, naturally). Fair warning for visitors: the old operating theatre was built in 1822 and very much feels that way. I recommend bringing a cushion if you’re planning on attending an event there.

Surgical theatre, Old Operating Theatre, London

For the most part though, I didn’t notice any discomfort during the talk. The lady presenting gave a very enthusiastic history of the practices undertaken in that room. No gruesome detail was spared. Did you know that one of the surgeons could amputate a leg in two and a half minutes? Or that after anaesthesia was discovered the mortality rate actually got worse, as doctor’s didn’t know how much to give patients? Disturbing stuff, but fascinating! Our host even got a volunteer to lie on the operating table and go through a simulated operation!

​It Begins

After the presentation, we were allowed to explore the theatre and the rest of the museum. As I wandered past medical diagrams and skeletons, I moved over to a table in the centre of the room. The cabinet displayed various surgical implements, and across the top were jars of human organs from previous historic surgeries.

I gave attention to a particular specimen: a cross section of a human brain, complete with veins and arteries. It was preserved in formaldehyde in a wooden box, next to a note which advised “strictly no photographs”.

My aunt was nearby, and came over to examine it as well. “Ugh, isn’t that fascinating,” she said. I agreed it was, but suddenly I felt a cold feeling wash over me. I tried to brush it off, but it felt stronger than usual. Immediately I thought, “don’t pass out!”  I tried to reassure myself, remembering that I hadn’t had any incidents for many years. But panic began to set in, and then things got worse.

Surgical equipment such as saws and scalpels

The air seemed to get thicker. Everything seemed brighter. Then reality seemed to fade slightly and then reassert itself with a jolt.

I took a step back from the cabinet.

“Are you alright?” asked my aunt. “You seem a bit pale.”

That’s a bad sign, I thought.

“I think I’ll just have a sit down,” I said. There were seats in the auditorium, and I could collect myself there.

Heading back inside, there were still a few people taking pictures. A lady was facing the seats and holding her camera up. At my entrance she lowered it, waiting for me to get out of the frame. My Britishness came to the fore and, not wanting to get in the way, I turned around and went back to the exhibits. Perhaps that short break was enough?

Crunch Time

The answer was a definite no. As soon as I entered the room, the sparkles came down in front of my eyes. I fell forward, and put my arms out to stop myself from completely face planting into the wooden floorboards. I breathed out, then in again, forcing myself to remain conscious. Fortunately, my aunt came over and helped me to stand up. I hoped nobody had been paying too much attention.

“Perhaps you need some fresh air,” she said.

“That’s an excellent idea,” I replied.

I was in flight mode already – anything to change my mindset before it spiralled into full-blown panic.

As we made for the exit, I remembered one potential obstacle: the stairs. They were wide enough for one person to comfortably get down, but not so easy to pass people. Sure enough, as we got to the top, we could hear people coming up the other way. It was an elderly couple, carefully taking their time to climb the narrow staircase. There was no way we were going to try barging past them.

It only took them a few minutes to reach the top, but those were some of the longest minutes of my life. I thought of what would happen if I did pass out. What if I had another seizure? What if they had to call an ambulance? We had things still to do that day! Going to a hospital would take hours! What would the museum staff and the other visitors think? Would they stare? What if a seizure did some damage to my brain? All these thoughts swirled around my head as we waited to make our way down to the outside.

​Escape and Relief

​After what seems like an eternity the elderly couple make it to the top of the stairway.

“It’s further than you think, isn’t it?” the man smiles at us. 

“It does seem that way!” I say, before practically throwing myself down the stairs in an effort to reach fresh air.

We make it outside, and I take refuge on a nearby street bench​. The change of scenery is already making a difference, and the breeze feels revitalising. By the time Dagney joins us, the colour has returned to my cheeks and the sparkly lights are gone.

All in all, nothing seriously bad has happened, but the experience has left me rattled. While there are certainly much more gruesome things in the world of dark tourism, this was still enough to set something off. Considering all the places we plan to visit, it doesn’t bode well for the future. Am I really cut out for this?

In my opinion, yes. This one experience shouldn’t stop me from travelling or exploring dark tourism. Just like one close call shouldn’t stop a climber from climbing or a racecar driver from racing. I’ll just have to be more careful and prepared next time. Because there will be a next time!

Practical Information for Visiting the Old Operating Theatre

Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret
9a St Thomas Street
London SE1 9RY

Adult: £6.50
Concession: £5.00 (students and over 60s with valid ID card)
Under 18: £3.50
Family: £15.00 (2 adults + up to 2 children under 18 – additional children +£1 each)

14:00 to 17:00
Bank Holiday Monday, Tuesday – Friday: 
10:30 to 17:00
Saturday & Sunday:
12:00 to 16:00

Every Saturday & Sunday there are surgical talks at 11:00 and 16:00. These must be booked ahead of time.
The Old Operating Theatre frequently hosts interesting events, such as films or talks related to medical advancements. Check out what’s coming up on their events page for more information.

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Dark and Historical Things to do in Norwich

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=> Check out our Travel Tales Page for even more awkward and personal travel stories!

Ever visited the Old Operating Theatre? Have you ever had an experience like this? Have you ​experienced something that made you re-evaluate your situation? How did you overcome it? Let us know in the comments below!


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