Operating theater

Operating theater

An operating theater (or theatre) was a tiered theater or amphitheater in which students and other spectators could watch surgeons perform surgery. Today the term is sometimes used synonymously with operating room or operating suite, the room within a hospital where surgical operations are carried out today.


Operating theaters had a raised table or chair of some sort at the center for performing operations, and were surrounded by several rows of seats (operating theaters could be cramped or spacious) so students and other spectators could observe the case in progress. The surgeons wore street clothes with an apron to protect them from blood stains, and they operated bare-handed with unsterilized instruments and supplies. (Gut and silk sutures were sold as open strands with reusable, hand-threaded needles; packing gauze was made of sweepings from the floors of cotton mills.)

In contrast to today's concept of surgery as a profession that emphasizes cleanliness and conscientiousness, at the beginning of the 20th century the mark of a busy and successful surgeon was the profusion of blood and fluids on his clothes.

Surviving operating theaters

While operating theaters are no longer used for surgery, some still exist. One of the oldest surviving operating theaters is the Old Operating Theatre in London. Built in 1822, it is now a museum of surgical history.

Another famous operating theater is the Ether Dome in Boston. Built in 1824, it is now a conference room and tourist attraction.

In popular culture

See also

Outside sources

The Operating Theatre Journal is published in the United Kingdom.

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