Research trip to the Old Operating Theatre

A fascinating trip to the Old Operating Theatre with one of our scientific collaborators Dr Alan Bates, Senior Lecturer in Pathology at UCL, seen here describing a typical autopsy:

Many interesting discoveries made, but here are some of the key points we took away from our discussions:

On conducting an autopsy:

  • Showed us how he would conduct an autopsy (see above) – pulling the guts up with considerable force and removing them as a whole, sawing off the top of the skull and removing the ‘blancmange’ like brain. ‘I’m old enough to have done this without electric saws’.
  • Has a preference for a short sharp knife – some of his friends prefer long ones – he uses a long one for the brain, as they’re so easy to slice.
  • ‘I sometimes feel that I don’t produce anything. Sometimes you wonder have I actually made a difference?’

On operations:

  • No anaesthetic at the time – the doctor’s assistants (‘dressers’) had to physically restrain the patient. Alan talked about the sheer brute force it took to operate or conduct autopsies (this is still true for autopsies), which got us thinking about the character of the doctor – he’ll need to be physically large, and his physicality when treating Tarrare and conducting the autopsy needs to be strong, brutish, heavy.
  • Patients were often blindfolded and/or gagged; Alan pointed out a surgeon’s walking cane that was used as a gag and was therefore bowed in the middle.
    • On this point – when we discussed wanting to show how horrible/painful pre-anaestetic treatments: ‘You really can’t overemphasise how horrible it was.’

On Tarrare’s specific condition:

  • At the time there was a particular fear of that which crossed from animal to human – a fear of French revolution unleashing ‘barbaric’, ‘animalistic’ characteristics in the revolutionaries. Both surgeons and Tarrare played into this fear of cannibalism/transgressing the human body.

All photos and video by Kasha Miller

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