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

America's Oldest Operating Theater

In the early 1800s, surgery was also a show. 


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

Antiseptics and anesthesia had yet to be invented. Before the hospital started using anesthesia in 1846, the primary tool of the surgeon was speed. 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 expanded, 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 original surgery amphitheater. 

Built in 1804 and used until 1868, the operating theater is the oldest in the United States. 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, rum, 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 be visited only on weekdays at 10 am and 2 pm with a guided tour. Self-guided tours are no longer available due to COVID-19 restrictions. Tours are based on guide availability and are limited to 25 people. To request a tour, please contact 215-829-5434 at least 72 hours in advance. Masks are required at all times on campus.

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