Travel: UK - Out of the closet

Rediscover the world of white magic at the apothecary's herb garret, housed in London's old St Thomas' Hospital

Herbalism, once consigned to the dusty recesses of the medical- history closet like a batty old aunt, is currently enjoying not so much a renaissance as a mega-boom. And in the apothecary's herb garret adjoining Britain's oldest operating theatre - both mysterious survivors of the demolition of most of the original St Thomas' Hospital, near London Bridge, in 1862 - the staff are determined to educate the public about the role of herbs in medical development past and present.

Housed in the vast, timbered roof space of the 17th-century St Thomas' church, which once abutted the hospital's female wards, the former herb- drying garret/dispensary and women's operating room were forgotten for almost a century, until a resourceful historian with a ladder rediscovered the old entrance in the Fifties.

Today, the restored Herb Garret Museum houses an alarming collection of early surgical instruments that look as if they belong in B&Q's DIY joinery section; a replica dispensary where you are invited to make your own pillules with the aid of a mahogany "pill machine", some withered leaves and a spot of glycerine; and an atmospherically aromatic thicket of dusty dried botanicals with arcane cultural, and astonishing medical, tales to tell.

With its past links with astrology and assorted magical and esoteric arts, herbalism is a lecturer's dream ticket when combined with the imagined flash of steel and bone. In the replicated standings of the Old Operating Theatre, where medical students from old St Thomas' and Guy's (including the delicate student John Keats) used to cram to witness gory procedures, the public now sits on Sunday afternoons to listen to a splendid oration by the museum curator, Karen Howell, or a specialist guest speaker.

Among the planned lecture delights later this year, for example, is "Shakespeare and the Medicines of the Apothecaries", on 6 December. There are always school-holiday workshops on the horrific, but popular, subject of "Victorian Surgery Before Anaesthesia". The marketing manager, Stewart Caine, says they never have any problems with attention span from the GCSE students who come to the museum to do their history of medicine module. "We just point to the operating table and ask for a blindfolded volunteer," he explains.

The lecture I attended was on the intriguing subject of "The Herbal Surgeon", which put forward the premiss that the battle fields of history not only provided medical personnel with practical experience of the "hand craft" of surgery, but also introduced a raft of sure-fire herbal remedies and stupefactives.

Yarrow, generic name Achillea, is named after Achilles, who is said to have used it to heal his soldiers' battle wounds. During the First World War it was still being used as a field dressing, as was moss. Comfrey, or bruisewort, and boneset - since found to contain allantoin, which stimulates the growth of connective tissue and mends cartilage and bone - were also must-have herbs for the battlefield. The astrologer and physician Nicholas Culpeper said of it in his 1640 Materia Medica that, spread upon a leather poultice, it "tends to heal gangrenes".

The rosy pink infused oil of St John's wort, once known as "Jesus Oil", was carried into battle by the Greeks, Romans and Crusaders for its efficacy in stemming bleeding.

Dioscorides, who was doctor to the Roman legions in the first century AD and also personal physician to Antony and Cleopatra, made a study of the painkilling and soporific qualities of plants. He prescribed willow bark, which contains salicin, a precursor of aspirin, to take the edge off pain.

Until the 17th century, a decoction of anaesthetic hedgerow narcotics such as henbane, mandrake, opium poppy, ground ivy, sea holly and wild lettuce was wafted under the noses of those about to undergo major surgery. Patients were brought round by a whiff of onions and vinegar.

In 1797, at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, Horatio Nelson had his wounded arm hurriedly cut off on the deck of his ship with only some opium and rum to dull the horror. In his book Operations That Made History (Greenwich Medical Services), Harold Ellis describes Nelson's stoic response when asked whether he had any complaints about the operation. He replied that the knife had been too cold, and ordered that all his ships carry portable primus stoves in future, against such ghastly eventualities.

The Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret is at 9a, St Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY (0171-955 4791). Open 10am-4pm daily. Admission pounds 2.90 adults, concessions pounds 2, children pounds 1.50, family pounds 7.25

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum