The Invention of Surgical Glovesa row of vintage medicine bottles on a shelf

The Invention of Surgical Gloves

The history of surgical gloves has surprisingly little to do with germ theory, and more to do with protecting the hands of the wearer from irritants. In 1890, Chief Nurse Caroline Hampton had developed a skin rash on her hands and arms. She got the rash from working barehanded with mercuric chloride during surgeries. These chemicals were used to kill germs, but Hampton had developed a contact reaction due to long exposure.

Hampton showed her condition to Dr. William Halsted, who was the surgeon she worked with. (“Fun” facts: he described her as having “gentle blood”. They would later marry.) Dr. Halsted worked out some designs with the Goodyear Rubber Company and requested two pairs of rubber latex gloves be made. The gloves produced were not like the stretchy and thin disposable gloves used today, but they were considered to be thin at the time.

Wearing the gloves was a success for Nurse Hampton; she was able to perform her surgical duties as necessary and her skin was no longer harmed by the harsh disinfectants. More gloves were ordered, and soon all of Dr. Halsted’s surgical team were wearing gloves during surgeries. The primary benefit, oddly, was thought to be increased dexterity during operations. Preventing germs and bacteria from spreading was not the first consideration. (Dr. Halsted himself did not begin consistently wearing the gloves he helped create until about 1896.)

In 1894, about 50 percent of surgeries were fatal for the patient. This is because handwashing didn’t necessarily take place between surgeries or exams, so patients were constantly being introduced to new germs and bacteria. This had especially tragic outcomes when a person is in the vulnerable state of having their organs exposed.

Dr. Joseph Lister was the first to sterilize his surgical tools. Then in 1894, he became the first to sterilize surgical gloves by using carbolic acid to clean them. The gloves made by the Goodyear Rubber Company were being to be used many times, as there were no medical reasons stated why they shouldn’t be. Once it became accepted that sterilizing gloves and washing hands is necessary, fatalities and infections from operations decreased significantly. This was a huge advancement in medical science.

It wasn’t until 1965 that surgical gloves changed dramatically. It was this year that sterile disposable latex rubber gloves were invented by Australian company Ansell Rubber. The process known as “Gamma Irradiation” is still used by glove companies to sterilize disposable gloves today.

Natural rubber latex remained the material of choice for disposable gloves until the 1990s. Then, the synthetic material known as nitrile was introduced. This material provides the same protection that latex does. Nitrile is not a common allergen, whereas latex can provide mild to severe allergic reactions in many people.

Nitrile and latex gloves are still the most popular types of disposable gloves for medical professions today, in both exam and surgical settings.