The history of surgical gloves

Written by maggie craig
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The history of surgical gloves
Surgical gloves protect both the patient and the surgical team from infection. (medical gloves image by sasha from Fotolia.com)

In 1894, William Stewart Halsted pioneered the widespread use of rubber gloves during surgery. Halsted was the first surgeon-in-chief and first professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital within the university of the same name in Baltimore. He is often called the father of American surgery and the father of surgical rubber gloves.

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Early Use of Surgical Gloves

According to an article by Judith Tanner in the British Journal of Nursing, the first known use of surgical gloves was by a German physician carrying out a gynaecological operation in 1758. The gloves were made from sheep's intestines and were intended to protect the surgeon from infection. At this time, surgeons routinely operated in their everyday clothes with no more than an already bloodstained apron over the top. In the 1840s, anatomists and pathologists began using rubber gloves when they were conducting dissections.

The history of surgical gloves
Anatomists often used rubber gloves to protect themselves from infection. (dissection kit image by Steve Johnson from Fotolia.com)

Vulcanisation Allows Surgical Gloves to Become More Flexible

The rubber gloves worn by early anatomists were thick and inflexible, unsuitable for surgeons performing operations. This changed when Goodyear developed vulcanisation in 1844, allowing for the development of surgical gloves which were lighter, yet also stronger and stretchier. In ,Englishman Thomas Forster, who worked for the India rubber Works, patented surgical gloves made from vulcanised rubber.

The history of surgical gloves
The Goodyear Rubber Company developed vulcanised rubber in 1844. (rubber image by Henryk Olszewski from Fotolia.com)

Development of Antiseptic Leads to Greater Use of Surgical Gloves

Lord Lister's pioneering work at Glasgow Royal Infirmary in Scotland in the 1860s on preventing infection in post-operative wounds led to carbolic acid being used as an antiseptic in operating theatres around the world. In 1889, one nurse at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore found that constant washing of her hands and surgical instruments in carbolic acid was giving her dermatitis. To save her from having to continually expose her hands to the acid, surgeon in chief William Stewart Halsted designed and commissioned a rubber glove from the Goodyear Rubber Company.

The history of surgical gloves
A nurse's reaction to carbolic acid led to the universal adoption of surgical gloves. (acid image by Charles Taylor from Fotolia.com)

Joseph Bloodgood Encourages the Use of Surgical Gloves

Joseph Bloodgood was another of the surgeons at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and one of William Stewart Halsted's assistants. He encouraged all members of the surgical team to wear the new-style, more flexible, rubber gloves. By the early 1900s, surgeons and theatre nurses were routinely wearing surgical gloves.

The history of surgical gloves
By the 1900s, surgical gloves were routinely worn during operations. (operation image by Falk from Fotolia.com)

Fun Fact

William Stewart Halsted had a personal interest in the nurse who developed dermatitis as a result of too much exposure to carbolic acid. Caroline Hampton was his fiancée at the time.

Latex Surgical Gloves Now Banned at Johns Hopkins

By January 2008, Johns Hopkins Hospital had phased out the use of latex surgical gloves. A press release issued by their News and Information Services at that time stated that this was in response to research evidence that "roughly 6 per cent of the general population and up to 15 per cent of health care workers are allergic to latex." Johns Hopkins continues, of course, to use surgical gloves, but these are now made of materials that will not cause allergic reactions in patients or medical staff.

The history of surgical gloves
Johns Hopkins Hospital no longer uses latex surgical gloves. (surgical team during operation: working on open wo image by alma_sacra from Fotolia.com)

Latex or Latex-free Surgical Gloves?

While Johns Hopkins Hospital no longer uses surgical gloves made of latex, some surgeons and medical professionals have reservations about gloves made from other materials. As reported at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in New Orleans, some surgeons believe that latex-free surgical gloves may be more likely to perforate during operations.

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