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The Victorian Operating Theatre Large Print Guide

The Victorian Operating Theatre

This guide covers the Victorian Operating Theatre, located between the first and second floors.
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Panel 1
Surgery becomes pain-free and infection-free

This is the Infirmary's first purpose-built operating theatre. It opened in 1897. Here, the odour of chloroform and carbolic, the clink of stainless steel instruments and the harsh glare of scrubbed white tiles represented the very best of late 19th-century surgical practice.

Anaesthetics had put an end to the unbearable pain of knives and saws. Antiseptics had reduced the death toll from infection. Surgeons were seen as leaders of the medical profession instead of expensive butchers.

A rare surgical relic

The operating theatre was later upgraded with "costly basins". What you see today reflects how the theatre would have looked around 1910. There are only two other surviving historic operating theatres in the UK.

Built and furnished on generosity

The funds to build this operating theatre came from two Peterborough women who chose to remain anonymous. They went by the name 'Heliotrope'.

Panel 2
Plenty of private patients too
(back of case)

Many of the doctors and surgeons who worked at Peterborough Infirmary had got well-established private practices in the city. For many years, Dr Walker was in practice with his father and later with his son, Russell.

New practices were set up as the city grew. One of these was by Peterborough's first black doctor, Joseph Watson Commissioning (1832–94), who had a surgery in Millfield. He was born in Grenada, and lived in Peterborough from c1850 until his death.

Dr Thomas James Walker (1835–1916)

Walker was the surgeon at Peterborough Infirmary from 1862 to 1906. He was a leader in his field: a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, the first surgeon in Britain to remove a growth from the larynx, and one of the first provincial surgeons to remove an ovarian tumour. In 1894, he wrote that there was "an urgent necessity for a properly-constructed room to be set apart for the sole purpose of operations." He knew that a purpose-built operating theatre was the surest way to reduce the risk of infection.

Dr George Kirkwood (1852–1916)

Kirkwood was a tall, well-built Scotsman with a sharp sense of humour. When cross-examined by a barrister who suggested that the most skilful doctors were in London, he replied "I suppose those remarks would also apply to barristers." Kirkwood trained with Lord Lister at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary before becoming an assistant surgeon at Peterborough in 1892, and full surgeon three years later. He brought Lister's surgical rigour and his latest antiseptic techniques to Peterborough.

Alfred Caleb Taylor (1860–1927)

Taylor was the dispenser of medicines at the Infirmary between 1888 and 1922. In 1896, he built one of the UK's first X-ray machines. In the early days, neither he nor anyone else knew the danger of X-rays. Taylor eventually died from radiation poisoning –from "the great sacrifice...made in connection with his pioneer work as an X-Ray operator."

Caption 1
New tools for surgery and diagnosis
(in case)

At the beginning of the 19th century, doctors based their diagnoses on what they could see, and on what patients told them. New tools such as the stethoscope helped doctors investigate inside patients' bodies. They were able to make connections between outward symptoms and what was going on internally.

Caption 2
Doctors are men, nurses are women
(in case)

Women began to enter the medical profession in the 1870s and '80s, but for most of the 19th century the medical roles of men and women were clearly defined: men were doctors or surgeons, women were nurses.

Until the Crimean War (1854–56), nursing was just another form of menial domestic work. Even the uniforms were similar. When the public heard about the work that Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole did with wounded soldiers, perceptions began to change. Hospitals started to think about training and suitability for the work. The selection criteria inevitably favoured the middle classes.

Highly valued work

The work of a nurse at Peterborough was valued but could be very hard. The rules were harsh, they had little time off and were not allowed to have a boyfriend. "Of Miss Sandon and her Nurses, it is my pleasing duty to speak, as I have done in past years, in terms of unqualified praise, for the kindness and sympathy they always show to those under their charge" –William Paley, Infirmary Physician, from his 1885 annual report.

War changes everything

The first woman surgeon at Peterborough Infirmary was Dr Jane Filshill. She was employed in 1914 as a last resort when no man could be found for the job. "Since the outbreak of the War it has been impossible to get a temporary House Surgeon, even at a salary...more than twice that previously attached to the appointment...It was therefore found necessary to elect a lady House Surgeon." Filshill was a rarity: only a handful of women qualified as doctors each year.

Matron's word is law

Evelyn Toms began training as a nurse at Peterborough Infirmary in 1925 when she was 17. She remembered working for the austere matron, Miss K Browne. Apparently her word was law.

Panel 3
Peterborough at the forefront of technology

Working with newly discovered X-rays In 1896, Alfred Caleb Taylor built the first X-ray machine in England, outside of London. It was extraordinarily new technology, developed within a year of the discovery of X-rays.

Taylor used the porter's lodge as his darkroom. His early images were positives because that's what photographic processes traditionally produced.

X-ray images gave doctors a powerful new way to study the interior of the body: "In the diagnosis of fractures, the location of foreign bodies, and in the treatment of skin affections...it has proved invaluable." – Report of the Infirmary Medical Board, 1909

X-rays for fun

In 1896, the Peterborough Photographic Society came to view the X-ray equipment. Taylor demonstrated by giving the society's chairman a five-minute exposure. The poor image prompted society members to wonder whether "the diffused light in the room was too great, the plate too slow...or the structure of our chairman too solid".

Panel 4
Fast work in filthy clothing
(on barrier)

At the start of the 19th century, amputation was the most common surgical operation. Mortality rates were as high as 40%. There was no anaesthetic, so surgeons worked fast. James Syme (1799–1870) could reputedly amputate a leg at the hip joint in 90 seconds.

The pain may have been dreadful, but the dirt of the operating theatre was the big killer. The operating table was wooden, the floor was covered in sawdust and the surgeon wore an old frock coat, caked in the blood of previous patients. Doctors thought that infection was the body's response to the trauma of injury and surgery, not the result of bacteria.

Pure, undiluted pain

"...when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast –cutting through veins –arteries –flesh –nerves...I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision...so excruciating was the agony." – Fanny Burney (1752–1840) describing her 1810 mastectomy

Panel 5
Careful work in gown and mask
(on barrier)

By the time this operating theatre was built, surgery had undergone a revolution. There was no pain, and much less infection.

Chloroform removes pain

It was James Young Simpson, a professor of midwifery at Edinburgh, who discovered chloroform's anaesthetic properties –reputedly by accident. In 1853, Queen Victoria used chloroform to ease the pain of childbirth: "...soothing, quieting & delightful beyond measure", she wrote. After that, everyone wanted a sniff.

Carbolic destroys bacteria

A breakthrough in the fight against infection came when Joseph Lister (1827–1912) experimented with wound dressings soaked in carbolic acid (phenol). The carbolic killed the infectious bacteria.

Lister published his results in The Lancet in 1867, yet hospitals were so slow to adopt hygienic surgical practices because the idea that bacteria caused infections and diseases remained controversial. Many doctors refused to believe in bacteria. "Where are these little beasts?" asked Professor John Hughes Bennett.

Panel 6
Original room with plenty of light
(on barrier)

This room is much as it was when it was a working operating theatre. The white tiles made it easy to scrub clean. They also reflected the light from the windows and skylight. Performing tricky operations is easier with plenty of natural light.

Gas lamps provided artificial light. You can still see the original gas pipes overhead.

None of the other fixtures are original. They are all from the same era, but they come from other hospitals or museums. The Belfast sink comes from elsewhere in this building.

All-metal operating table

The first operating table in this theatre was wooden. It would have been difficult to keep clean and bacteria-free. It was later replaced by an all-metal operating table similar to the one on display here.

Panel 7
Industrial accidents top the surgical list
(on barrier)

Working conditions within Victorian farms and factories produced a steady stream of patients needing surgery. Each year, the Infirmary's annual reports highlighted one or two gruesome cases. Mostly they were amputations.

Railway accidents reach epidemic levels

The railways brought industry, wealth and rising casualties to Peterborough. Safety standards were low and competition was fierce. In 1873, the surgeon wrote: "the Railway Accident Epidemic...seems to have been felt here...7 patients admitted for accidents have died, while others have only recovered with the loss of one or two limbs."

Life-saving surgery

The 19th century also brought in many new surgical procedures to remove tumours. The work was often at the limit of surgical know-how.

Ovariotomy –the removal of an ovary –was one of those pioneering procedures. In 1874, Thomas Walker reported his third success: "...one poor woman, who was rapidly passing by a miserable illness to her grave, has been saved by ovariotomy."

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