Gammex Non-Latex Polyisoprene surgical gloves, courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Barkun and the McGill University Health Centre

Surgical Gloves and the Battle of Protection vs. Sensitivity

In medicine and science today we take the use of gloves for granted. But their usefulness in surgery was not as obvious when they were first introduced in the late 1800s. In 1889 the Johns Hopkins surgeon, William Halsted, first introduced rubber gloves in surgery as a gift to his chief operating nurse and future wife, Caroline Hampton, to protect her hands from the caustic solutions that were used to prevent bacterial infection in the patient. They were subsequently used by Halsted’s assistants, but their use for the protection of the patient from the bacteria present on the surgeon’s hands was not immediately apparent. Using gloves for the entire surgical team did not become standard practice at Johns Hopkins until 1896.

In fact, the use of gloves by surgeons during procedures was a subject of controversy and debate in the surgical world of the 1890s. The increasingly delicate nature of surgery highlighted the importance of touch and dexterity, two aspects that were compromised by the use of gloves. Many surgeons were not willing to give up touch and dexterity in exchange for sterility. Others were more amenable to negotiating between manual and microbial control and experimented with various materials such as cotton, silk, leather, and rubber, as well as combinations of these materials. Surgical meetings began to include demonstrations of the different models of gloves that were available from manufacturers.[1]

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Advertisement for surgical gloves that allow for “a very feeble pulse” to be felt through its rubber. Illustrated Catalogue of High Grade Surgical Instruments and Physicians’ Surgical Supplies, Sharp & Smith in Chicago circa 1908. Trade Literature Collection, Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Catalogues of surgical equipment and sundries in the Museum’s Trade Literature Collection exhibit some of the specific features of gloves that were marketed to surgeons for the best preservation of the surgical touch. One catalogue from the Chicago manufacturer of surgical supplies c1908 advertises “Seamless Rubber Gloves” that are “smooth, strong, seamless, non-absorbent and can be sterilized. A very feeble pulse; differences in the consistency of tissue and irregularities of surfaces can be felt through these,” indicating some of the traits surgeons looked for in an ideal glove. Other desired qualities included comfort and flexibility. Another catalogue published c1900 by The Hospital Supply Co. in New York specifically describes their gloves as being made “of very thin soft rubber, fitting close to the skin, and not impairing the sense of touch.” Starkman, a company based in Toronto, claimed that their 1970 model was “So sensitive it will actually transmit a finger-print.”

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Gloves that claim to be “so sensitive it will actually transmit a finger-print.”  Starkman Surgical Supply: Price Catalogue 1970, Toronto, 1970. Trade Literature Collection, Canada Science and Technology Museum.

As technological advances allowed for significantly more touch-sensitive gloves to be manufactured, eventually gloves became a ubiquitous and essential part of a surgeon’s toolkit. Surgeons can now focus on choosing gloves based on comfort and flexibility. My work examining the surgical touch for the Museum’s upcoming exhibit, Medical Sensations, has led me to delve deeper into how today’s surgeons choose their ideal glove. Dr. Gerald Fried, Surgeon-in-Chief at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, says that what is important for him is that “the shape of the different brands cause pressure in different areas of the hands resulting in fatigue for longer cases.” Thus he chooses gloves based on their shape and the stretchiness of their material so that there is no restriction in movement.

Sensicare polyisoprene surgical gloves, courtesy of Dr. Harvey Sigman and the Montreal Jewish General Hospital

Sensicare polyisoprene surgical gloves, courtesy of Dr. Harvey Sigman and the Montreal Jewish General Hospital

According to Dr. Harvey Sigman, a surgeon at the Montreal Jewish General Hospital, gloves made of thicker material are preferred by some surgeons for their added protection against puncture and cautery burn. Some surgeons, including Dr. Sigman, even choose to double glove for extra protection.

Gammex Non-Latex Polyisoprene surgical gloves, courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey Barkun and the McGill University Health Centre

Others, such as Dr. Jeffrey Barkun, a surgeon at the McGill University Health Centre, find double gloves to be too constricting and prefer to use glove liners. Dr. Barkun finds that that these soft, thin, gloves hug the skin very tightly and offer better protection without impairing the sense of touch. Drs. Sigman and Barkun have kindly provided samples of their preferred gloves to the Museum’s Medical Artifacts Collection. Along with some of the Museum’s trade literature, these will be on display in the surgical touch section of the upcoming Medical Sensations exhibition.

[1] For more information check out Thomas Schlich’s article, “Negotiating Technologies in Surgery: The Controversy about Surgical Gloves in the 1890s” in the July 2013 issue of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine.

Cynthia L. Tang is a 2016 CSTMC-McGill Research Fellow