Friday, 17 September 2010

The Herb Garret

After a visit to the British Library last Sunday, I went with Chris to see a really strange little museum.

Hidden away at the top of a narrow and steep spiral staircase in St Thomas's Church in Southwark, is a 300-year old herb garret. This roof space is where the herbs used in St Thomas's hospital were dried and dispensed from. The hospital moved in 1862 (as a consequence of the development of Waterloo station) and the garret was forgotten and fell into disuse, only to be rediscovered in 1957. 

Now acting as a reminder of times well before a national health service!

It's an astonishing little space, full of quite frightening ideas such as Snail Water.

The recipe quoted here was used by a Dr Richard Mead, St Thomas's Hospital in the early 18th century.

Selected notes from early Hospital Accounts
1560: Scaldhead Ointment recipe:Mustard and Strong Vinegar,
Verdigris, Spikand, Pepper and Salt. 2nd Salve: Lard of goose, sheep,
and dung, oil of Spikend, honey, poppy and Stavesacre(?) 3rd Salve.
Pitch, mes (?) in turps, vinegar and water.
1585: Apothecary's Salary raised from £32 to £36 to include cost
drugs. Later raised to £40 to cover cost of Scurvy Grass
1603: 'To Mrs Matron for gunypur & amp; frankincense for 1 month 1/4.d More for vyneger & amp; egges 1/-'
1605 Bath of Herbs and Sheep Heads for Woman suffering from
unknown illness.

The women's operating theatre was built into one end of the roof space in 1822 because there wasn't enough room in the hospital next door.

The Apothecary's Act, 1815, required apprentice apothecaries to attend at public hospitals, this meant that hordes of students poured in to watch operations. The majority of cases were for amputations or superficial complaints as, without antiseptic conditions, it was too dangerous to carry out internal operations. . . .

The absence of anaesthesia meant that speed was of the essence, and one Guy's surgeon, Alfred Poland, amputated a leg at the thigh in twenty-seven seconds.

Other 'oddities' on show are a series of photographs. They give an illustration of hospital life that is so far removed from our understanding, that it's almost impossible to think of these images as portraying places for the treatment of illness and injury. 

There is a certain morbid fascination in looking at the surgical implements and old photographs and the reassuring thought that medical ideas do constantly evolve!

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