Last week I was very fortunate to visit The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret just by London Bridge with the wonderful Julie from Vintage Attitude. Hidden away, up a steep spiral staircase and nestled in the dark timbers of the attic of an old church the museum is caught in a sleepy, rather delicious time warp.
It was part of St Thomas’s hospital – a hospital that was described as ancient way back in 1215…
On one side is the herb garret and apothecary. And on the other – the oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe.
What stories these walls could tell.
But what really caught my eye was this picture of James (Miranda) Barry, an amazing woman who overcame the general prohibition on women studying Medicine by disguising herself as a man to become the first female British surgeon. Barry qualified in Medicine in 1812 and went onto train as a surgeon at St. Thomas’s. In January 1813, she qualified as a Regimental Surgeon at the Royal College of Surgeons and over the next fifty years she rose through the ranks to become Inspector General of the Hospitals in the British Army. No mean feat – and she must’ve been good because in Cape Town in 1826 this vegetarian, teetotalling surgeon performed the first documented successful Caesarean Section where both mother and baby survived. Barry even met Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, who noted in her memoirs:
‘He kept me standing in the midst of quite a crowd of soldiers, Commissariat, servants, camp followers etc every one of who behaved like a gentlemen during the scolding I received while (she) behaved like a brute…After he was dead, I was told that (she) was a woman..I should say that (she) was the most hardened creature I ever met.’
Barry spent most of her laters years with her constant companion and manservant John (in the picture with her above) and it was only on her deathbed that she was finally discovered to be a woman. Barry was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London in 1865.
What a truly remarkable human being with an incredible story of which this must only be the very tip of the iceberg..an unsung heroine who surely should at the very least share the same historical podium as Florence Nightingale?…I am desperate to know more and now feel compelled to visit Kensal Green Cemetery to find her grave…I can’t help but wonder which name is on her headstone?…and what it might say?
Laters, Kate x