Curator's Choice: The Old Operating Theatre

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My favourite item in our collection is a trepanation set dating from 1770. Trepanning consists of making a hole in the skull and is the most ancient of all operations; they have found prehistoric skulls with holes in them. The idea was that if you had a headache or were subject to fits or blindness, a hole was bored in your head to let out the evil spirits or humours. In Victorian times it even became fashionable for ladies to have the operation and wear the circular piece of skull on a gold chain around their neck.

There are records of the operation being done in 1751 on a young lad who had been kicked by a horse, denting his forehead and causing him to have spasms. After cutting through, they found splinters of bone resting on his brain, which they pulled out, curing the boy. So it did work in some cases.

The trepanation sets themselves are delicately crafted, which makes them works of art as well as items of torture. As pieces of engineering they are also marvels - beautifully shaped with a mathematical quality about them. There is a cylinder with a serrated edge, and in the middle of the cylinder there is a point. You stick the point in the skull and turn it so that you cut a hole, about the size of a 10 pence piece. The teeth in the saw are precision shapes but also excruciatingly efficient. It's the dichotomy that appeals to me, everything has this dual purpose. It comes in a pretty box and one assumes that doctors would have had their own sets so, if necessary, they could do a trepanation by the roadside.

Hugh Jenkins is the administrator of The Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret, 9A St Thomas' St, Southwark, SE1 (071-955 4791). Opening times daily 10-4pm. Photograph by Vinicio Horta.

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