Recreation of 1980s surgery techniques

Bringing surgery to life – if you’ve got the gall for it…

Post written by Katie Maggs, Curator of Medicine

Our 1980s operating theatre came back to life this morning, as we brought back together a surgical team from London’s Westminster Hospital to carry out three operations in the way they would have been performed in 1983. The idea is to capture how operations were performed in the past when surgery was very different from how it is today.

Live action surgery as visitors look on.

The surgery team – Professor Harold Ellis (surgeon), Professor Stanley Feldman (anaesthetist) and Sister Mary Neiland (theatre sister) – worked together for many years. They are now retired, but agreed to come together at the Science Museum, where a full-scale 1980s operating theatre is on show on the fourth floor. Other members of the team assisting them were present-day clinicians getting the chance of a lifetime to work with surgical legends like Harold and Stanley.

Professor Stanley Feldman

Sister Mary Neiland and Surgeon, Professor Harold Ellis

How has surgery changed? Well in the 1980s a surgical team (surgeon, anaesthetist and theatre sister) might have worked closely together for 20 years or more. Nowadays the team doing an operation may never have met until the day of the procedure, which can sometimes make communication a problem. Surgery itself is very different too. Then, all operations were done by ‘open’ surgery, often needing large incisions. Now, many operations use ‘keyhole’ surgery, where miniature cameras and instruments can be passed into the patient’s body through tiny holes in the skin.

The project has been led by Roger Kneebone, Professor of Surgical Education at Imperial College London. Roger was a surgeon in training in the 1980s. He now leads an unusual group of researchers with an international reputation in surgical simulation, bringing together clinicians, psychologists, engineers and prosthetics experts.

Talking about prosthetics – a realistic simulator (complete with silicone intestines, fake blood and pig’s liver – ick!) was used instead of a real patient (funnily enough we didn’t receive any volunteers willing to be operated on!).

Max Campbell, Director of Health Cuts Ltd, puts the finishing touches to the simulated patient he created. If you've ever watched Holby City - you've more than likely already seen Max's gory work.

Three operations were performed including a cholecystectomy (the removal of the gall bladder and a common treatment for gallstones), as well as a hernia repair (to fix a rupture of the muscles in the groin).

Jimmy, the surgical Registrar, shows us the gall bladder (the white blob) on the underside of the liver that sits inside the 'patient'.

Equipped with the latest technology, the Science Museum’s operating theatre was cutting edge when it was installed in the early 1980s. In fact it caused quite a media controversy that such new medical gear was going to a museum rather than into a hospital. Now it’s the perfect environment for simulating surgery of the 1980s.

You can usually see our diorama dummies performing heart surgery.

Ok – so where did the dummies go this morning? A glance to the side of the operating theatre revealed a rather unusual sight…

Conservator Ian Miles (who made this event possible) demonstrates how many surgeons can fit in one very small store room! As far as we know he hasn't had a Mannequin moment yet...

We hope to repeat this event sometime in the near future and also put films of today’s operations up on the web – we’ll keep you posted!

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