NURSES ARE not easily shocked. But even years of bandaging wounds and mopping up blood have not fully prepared this group of visiting American nurses for the little room with the gory past tucked into a church attic in the heart of London.
They pale a little as guide Sue Weir lifts the lid of a wooden box to reveal a set of gleaming knives and hacksaws, used to amputate the limbs of unfortunate Victorian patients in the days before anaesthetic or antiseptic. Speed was then the surgeon's best hope. With only brandy to dull the pain and a blindfold to shut out the scene, some patients died of shock in the tiny operating theatre, while many more of them succumbed to infection when they returned to the wards.
The nurses, on a sightseeing tour during a professional trip to Britain, recover from their shock sufficiently to pose flat out on the wooden operating table for photographs. Some visitors to London are content to take in Big Ben and Buckingham Palace; others cannot resist the lure of leeches, body snatchers and pickled organs. To cater for such appetites, Sue Weir offers half-day and full-day tours in London and the home counties, to unravel the secrets of medical history museums and trace the remnantsof our gory and painful past. Demand, she says, is increasing. As well as nurses and doctors, her groups include ordinary sightseers keen to learn more about how we lived - and died. "I think it is just curiosity," she says. "We don't put up with pain these days. A hundred years ago illness was part of everybody's life. Today it is just an incon-venience and a nuisance."
A former nurse who switched careers to become a tourist guide six years ago, Sue Weir is also the author of the definitive guidebook to our medical heritage, Weir's Guide to Medical Museums in Britain (Royal Society of Medicine Services Ltd, pounds 10). Enthu s iasts can use it to track down Roman surgical instruments, a Victorian dentist's hand-drill and a fleet of antique ambulances, in more than 200 museums, famous homes, spas and herb gardens.
Earlier in the day, the American nurses have toured the archives at the Royal London Hospital, where Dr Barnardo and Edith Cavell once worked, and the Florence Nightingale museum at St Thomas's Hospital, London, which traces the nursing pioneer's life a n d recreates a Victorian hospital ward. At the little museum with the operating theatre - the oldest surviving one in the country, on the original Southwark site of St Thomas's - they have no trouble recreating scenes from the past with the help of Sue We ir's graphic commentary and some lethal-looking props.
Early operations, she explains, were performed on the wards but the victims' screams distressed other patients so much that in 1822 doctors decided to create a purpose-built operating theatre by extend- ing into the roof of St Thomas's church next door, where the hospital apothecary already stored his herbs. Here, for the next 40 years - until the hospital moved to its present site opposite the House of Commons - the surgeons wielded their knives under gas light in front of jostling ranks of medical students.
Such procedures as amputations, bone- setting and removing kidney stones were their main stock in trade. Kidney stones were "cut out" by inserting a metal instrument directly into the urethra, crushing the stone and withdrawing it. Samuel Pepys underwent such an operation in the 17th century. In his diaries he describes celebrating the anniversary of the procedure, performed by a female surgeon.
Without anaesthesia, internal surgery was too risky to perform, and anyway the doctors had little idea of how the body worked. They had no notion of germs - surgeons stitched up wounds with needles they kept behind their frockcoat lapels - and bedside manners were a thing of the future. As one 19th-century student wrote: "The more the patient did cry out, the more we did laugh. …