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1st February 2008 at 00:00
Although better known for its displays on shipping, fishing and the oil industry, Aberdeen Maritime Museum has also staged a series of temporary exhibitions in recent years on various social and medical themes, with the latest being A Surgical Thread.

Using objects (including an operating table) and archive material from Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, the exhibition, which runs until March 16, charts the evolution of hospital operating theatres from the 1700s to the present day.

A handwritten document shows that in 1821, only 43 surgical operations were carried out at the infirmary, compared with more than 60,000 in 1999. The late Princess Diana caused a furore when she was allowed to watch an operation at a London hospital, but this exhibition points out that, in days gone by, operating "theatres" were just that - with the one at the new Aberdeen Royal Infirmary of 1892 designed to accommodate 200 observers in tiered seating, "with no restriction on wearing outdoor clothing".

By that time, the use of anaesthetics meant that "the harrowing screams of patients could be quelled" as Aberdeen had appointed its first chloroformist in 1871. Ether was tried at the infirmary in 1847, but the surgeon-in-charge was said to have preferred "tying the patient to a table, having administered some whisky and said a prayer".

By 1810, rubber gloves were being used in operating theatres to guard against infection. But even as late as the 1950s, gloves at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary were washed after use and dried over a wooden clothes horse before being examined for holes and patched with pieces of old glove and a bicycle tube repair kit.

As one visitor noted in the comments book: "I'm glad I don't live in the old days."

T 01224 337700.

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