An operating theatre was part of the central building of the 1856 era Adelaide Hospital. The main block consisted of a consulting or casualty room and operating theatre. An account of a visit the Hospital in 1866 describes the ‘general operating room’ as comfortable and well suited for its secondary function as a place of worship. In the early decades, on Sundays, the operating room served as the hospital chapel.
By late in 1890, the main building had been completed, with the pantry and lavatory accommodation added and a covered walkway provided from the wards to the new theatre block.
Adelaide newspaper reports of the new operating theatre were positive, this description written just before it was opened February 1891, is quoted; “the fittings of the building, though plain, are of the most solid and substantial character. The theatre itself is cemented, floor tiled, and ample light provided all round. Rows of seats are raised in two semicircles for students and medical visitors, and every appliance is to be found for operating to the best advantage-”
“The Advertiser” newspaper, Friday 1st August 1890, gave eloquent details in the article titled ‘Adelaide Hospital New Operating Theatre’, “- the anaesthetic chamber door opens directly onto the theatre, – the surgeons room, opening onto the theatre”.
The article also describes “the most important piece of furniture in the new theatre will be the operating table, which is being manufactured according to a design of the instrument-keeper of the institution. It includes ingenious mechanical devices for disposing the body of the patient in the attitude most suitable for the operation. The instruments will be kept ready to hand in the surgeon’s room. The operating table, which was designed and erected by the theatre attendant, John Wood, is the best of its kind. Connected with the theatre are surgeons’, students’, waiting and anaesthetic rooms, provided with all necessary appliances and fittings. In addition to the theatre itself and the adjoining rooms there are two very large and lofty wards with tiled floors, and walls tiled from floor to ceiling, containing six beds each, for receiving patients after operation until they are fit to remove to the general wards. At the back of these are two small separation wards, tiled in the same way, with one bed each for special cases requiring isolation. There is a nurses’ room centrally situated, so that all four wards can be overlooked without entering any of them. The building itself is very lofty, with hollow walls and a thick layer of seaweed between the roof and ceilings for reducing the temperature of the building. The ventilation of the entire block is very complete. It may be fairly stated that the building is one of the most complete operating blocks in the world”
Mr John Wood, the theatre attendant was appointed in 1888. Mr Wood was employed as Surgical Mechanic and Custodian of Surgical stores, he worked in this position for thirty eight years. His son Harold was first his assistant and then his successor, also employed at the Hospital for many decades of service.
Medical students were expected to know quite a good deal about the names of surgical instruments and their uses. For a small fee, Mr Wood tutored the students in this practice.
It is believed that the theatre block of 1891 was the first in Australia to have adjoining post-operative wards, known now as Recovery wards. The two six-bed wards were called Charity and Mercy, usually referred to as the Theatre Wards.
From 1898, alterations and improvements for the theatre were gradually identified. It was not until 1903 that finance for alterations, such as a sterilizing plant, were available and the work approved. The funds for improvements were supplied by the Commissioners of the Adelaide Hospital, not from the South Australian Government. By 1904 the theatre arrangements were again regarded as being in line with the best surgical practice.
The block which became known as Number One Theatre remained in use until the McEwin Building with its modern theatres was opened in 1946.
National Library of Australia nla.gov.au/nla.news-article26758290
A History of the Royal Adelaide Hospital, J.Estcourt Hughes, 1967.
Heritage Office accession numbers: 629, 5126,
Heritage Office photo catalogue-1.12, 1.146, 1.235, 2.12.