The Invention of Rubber Gloves: A True Love Story!

One of the original rubber surgical gloves, which belonged to J. M. T. Finney. It was encased in lucite for the Johns Hopkins Hospital centennial. Copyright of the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

In 2006 Professor Harold Ellis, CBE Mch FRCS, during an interview at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret shared this little love story connected to the invention of the rubber gloves. What comes next is a transcription of his words:

WilliamHalsted1880
William Halsted in 1880, soon to become the first surgeon in chief when Johns Hopkins Hospital opened. Copyright of the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.
carolinehampton1889
Caroline Hampton in 1889. Copyright of the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

“Well, rubber gloves of course are a fascinating topic. They were originally introduced to protect the surgeon from the antiseptics that he was using and also the surgical staff…They would plunge their hands into strong antiseptic: carboric acid, and they would get the most dreadful, painful dermititis which often rendered them incapable of operating. And a surgeon, again in Boston, called Dr. William Halstead introduced rubber gloves [in 1889-1890]: not to protect the patient from infection, but to protect the surgeon from the disinfectant. So they’d put their gloves on and instead of red raw dermatitis their hands would be alright. Halstead’s theatre assistant [Caroline Hampton], who he was very fond of, went to see him and she said “Dr. Halstead I can’t work any more, my hands are so raw I’m resigning.” He was terribly upset, he got her this pair of gloves and her dermatitis disappeared, she went back to being his theatre assistant, and he married the girl. So you see, there’s this romance. The next thing of course was the gloves being sterile protected the patient from any bacteria that might be on the surgeon’s hands, even though he’d scrubbed them and put on loads of antiseptic. … The gloves were sterile so when I put my hand inside the patient’s wound I’m absolutely sure I’m not introducing anything. So the story’s come full circle, wer’re now back to everyone in healthcare…putting gloves, back to Halstead again, to protect themselves from hepatitis and AIDS, to protect themselves from the patient lying on the road. So everything in this world is cyclical.”

Want to learn more? Check this article on Caroline Hampton, the first to use rubber gloves in the operating room.