Hands Off; The Gripping Story of Medical Gloves

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Medical gloves are one of the most ordered yet unappreciated consumables for medical facilities. In fairness, there’s nothing particularly exciting about them, not when your job is putting them on, taking them off, disposing of them, then starting over again. All. Day. Long.

Medical practitioners take gloves for granted like regular folks think about toilet paper. They’re a necessity, one everyone appreciates because germs are bad, friends.

But, if you want to create absolute chaos, hide all the medical gloves and toilet paper. Then sit back and watch everyone lose their collective minds.

Let’s agree, medical gloves are important.

Arguably, they’re kind of fascinating too. Next time you have the chance, take a moment to marvel at the super-thin, flexible, but tough accessory designed to fit over the most complicated appendage on the human body.

They’re kind of amazing, aren’t they? One has to wonder, how do they make those things, and who was the wizard that dreamed up such a bizarre creation?

As it turns out, humans have been working with medical gloves for a little over a century. They were initially to do with preventing infection, but they’ve come to be that and so much more.

They are one of the most important, forgettable, but still fascinating tools in a practitioner's toolbox of disposables.


Caroline Hampton


One of the first nurses working at the then-new John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland (U.S.A.), was Caroline Hampton.

The hospital which opened in 1889, now appreciates international recognition for education and medicine. In 1889, it was only a dot on the medical map.

That was the year Hampton advised one the four chief surgeons, Dr William Stewart Halsted, that she’d developed a rash from handling chemicals used in surgery.

Halsted was a man of some power at the time. He was the doctor who developed a unique way of treating hernias, and also a new way for removing gallstones.

His reputation was for precision and cleanliness, so Hampton’s needs demanded his consideration. It didn't hurt that he was a little sweet on her too.

So, he leveraged his power and professional network, to contact the Goodyear Rubber Company, and order some rubber gloves for Hampton.

Yes, that’s the same Goodyear on the sidewalls of automobile tires.  


Rubber Gloves


The medical gloves arrived for Hampton, and they not only worked to save her from rash, but there was a side benefit. With the gloves on, she’d developed gripping superpowers.

The gloves weren’t disposable, and they weren’t as thin as today’s, but they worked. With a little getting used to, there wasn’t much Hamton couldn’t do.

Hampton came to love her gloves. So did Halsted. It didn’t take long for all the staff to have a pair.

Worn during operations, there were fewer fumbles, and nobody caught a rash.  It is with some modern irony that they had not yet considered the added protection afforded to the patients by wearing the gloves.

What, if any effort was made to clean those gloves between procedures, is anyone’s guess. A good rinse was probably enough.

One thing is for sure, the ancillary surgeons at John Hopkins also started to don the gloves. They became a standard, but it would be a few decades before someone upgraded the design.


Disposable Gloves


In 1894, half of all patients who went under the knife died. Infection was the biggest contributor to this statistic. And, as we've already discovered, washing one's gloves, like washing one's hands, was done on a case-by-case basis.

In fact, at that time, it was normal to move from one surgery to another without washing. Again, "... half of all patients who went under the knife died. Infection was the biggest contributor to this statistic."


It was another surgeon, Joseph Lister, who first sterilized his tools between procedures. His practice of cleanliness would eventually take gloves and the whole medical practice to the next level.

Using carbolic acid, Lister reduced infection in his patients and increased his success rates. When the medical community got wind of his results, folks started to consider this whole cleanliness concept.

Then, in 1941, the Ansell Rubber Company, started developing a disposable version of the popular rubber glove. It took them over 20 years, but in 1965, they had it.

Sterilised with gamma irradiation, Ansell was the first with wear-once gloves.




The standard for most of the 20th century was latex. In the 1990s, fueled in part by the AIDS epidemic, more and more patients and practitioners complained of latex allergies.

Somewhere between six and 15 percent of people suffer allergic reactions to latex. An alternative, Nitrile gloves showed up to allay the complaints, but it didn’t ultimately replace latex.

Other materials filled the needs of latex, neoprene, polyisoprene, and vinyl, all non-plant protein containing substances.

The gripping tale of the medical rubber glove had finally come full circle, from function to dysfunction, and back to function again.

In 2008, the hospital that started it all, John Hopkins, went latex free. The latex glove continues to appreciate widespread use, especially in places where access to alternatives is not possible.

For people in outlying areas, the 6-15 percent chance of allergic reaction doesn’t compare to the old 50 percent mortality rate from infection.

Oh yeah, in case you were curious, Dr William Stewart Halsted married Caroline Hampton in 1890. It seems rubber is mightier than the diamond. Sources: hopkinsmedicine.orgblog.ammex.comwashingtonpost.com
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