When the limitations of antiseptic surgery became evident by the 1880’s, numerous innovations were needed for the transition into aseptic technique over the next several decades. Surgical gloves were initially meant to protect the wearer’s skin from corrosive antiseptic solutions, as in the famous instance of William Halstead’s use in 1889 of rubber gloves for his nurse assistant, whom he later married. Another real danger was infection of the surgeon’s hand in septic cases. Kurt Schimmelbusch, a Berlin surgeon who wrote the influential Guide to Aseptic Wound Treatment in 1892, ironically actually died in 1895 at age 35 from this cause.
But finding the appropriate material for gloves was not simple; it had to be impermeable, durable, sterilizable, but also thin and flexible enough not to impede the surgeon’s sense of touch. Cotton gloves were often used, but they were permeable when wet and had to be changed frequently. Silk impregnated with paraffin required time for the paraffin to dry on the surgeon’s hands. At one point rubber condoms for the fingers were used, but incorporating them into rubber for the whole hand was at first beyond the capacity of the technology of the time. Gloves were not universally used till well after World War I. A few eye surgeons operated gloveless into the 1960s.
REFERENCE: Schlich, T: Negotiating Technologies in Surgery: The Controversy about Surgical Gloves in the 1890s. Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 2013. 87 (2); 170-197.
Submitted by Ron Fishman from the Cogan Ophthalmic History Society .