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The history of surgical gloves

Updated April 17, 2017

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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About the Author

Maggie Craig is a Scottish writer who published her first book 13 years ago. She now has seven novels and two works of full-length non-fiction to her name, as well as hundreds of articles, which have appeared in Scottish newspapers and magazines and on the Internet.