What is an Operating Theater?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2019
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An operating theater is a large room in which students or spectators can view surgery or similar medical procedures being conducted. This type of room was used primarily in the past, often for medical students or peers within the medical community to observe a surgery or other procedure. They were often constructed as circular rooms with a central platform on which the doctors and patient would be located, around which seats were arrayed in tiers to provide audience members with a view of the procedure. An operating theater is typically no longer used, though some operating rooms do have viewing areas located adjacent to them.

The use of an operating theater for instruction of students or doctors was prevalent prior to the 20th century. These theaters were constructed and attended without concern for cleanliness or sanitary procedures, and modern medical practices would not include dozens of people in the same room as a person undergoing surgery. An operating theater of this type was primarily included as part of a university. Students in medical fields would attend surgeries in an operating theater to see a professional demonstration of various techniques. Other doctors could also attend these lectures and demonstrations to see new techniques or to observe a particularly noteworthy doctor.


An operating theater was typically constructed as a large, tall, circular room. At the center of the room, the operating doctor or doctors and the patient would be located on a platform. The patient would be presented lying on a table, and lighting in the room would be intended to illuminate the central activity so that viewers could clearly see what occurred. Around this central platform, rows of seats would be arrayed, usually in raised tiers similar to an amphitheater or coliseum, providing each row with the ability to clearly see over the rows before it.

Modern operating rooms and teaching hospitals do not include an operating theater, though there are still some viewing methods for students and doctors. Some operating rooms at teaching hospitals or universities include adjoining rooms with a large window that allow occupants to observe what is occurring in the operating room, without exposing patients to additional germs. There are also facilities in which cameras are placed within an operating room, allowing remote viewing of a surgery for students or other doctors. This type of modern operating theater can even utilize the Internet to broadcast a surgery to students and medical professionals in a completely different place.


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