America's Oldest Operating Theater – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - Atlas Obscura

America's Oldest Operating Theater

America's oldest existing surgical theater, where you can practically hear the screams. 


In the early 1800s, an operating theater was quite literally that—a combination of surgical operating room and stage theater, complete with an unruly audience of young doctors, nervous “performers,” and physical comedy. Students crowded into the seats to see how a particular surgery was performed, or just for an afternoon show.

Antiseptics, anesthesia, and any sense of a patient’s privacy had yet to be invented. In the days before medical anesthesia, the primary tool of the surgeon was the speed at which they could detach limb from trunk. Patients were generously given a choice of opium, liquor, or a knock on the head with a mallet to render them unconscious.

Within the walls of Philadelphia’s modern Pennsylvania Hospital is the original hospital, founded in 1751 by Ben Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond. The Pine building, in addition to having a beautiful medical library (featuring 13,000 books and a series of plaster anatomical casts) holds the famous theater.

Built in 1804 and used until 1868, the operating theater was the first of its kind in America. The building of the amphitheater helped formalize surgery and turn it into a recognized medical discipline. Of course, you still wouldn’t want to have been the one on the table in 1804. “Opium, whiskey, or mallet?”

Know Before You Go

The grounds are open and the historical buildings may be viewed from outside, but all exterior doors are locked: visitors must check in through the modern hospital's main entrance on 8th Street. The theater can only be visited on work days.

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