Published On October 7, 2019
WILLIAM HALSTED IS CONSIDERED THE FATHER OF AMERICAN SURGERY for a number of reasons, among them his work advancing the procedures for gallstone removal and the radical mastectomy for breast cancer. But he is less well known for his role in introducing the surgical glove—and his mixed motives in its development.
Halsted cut a dashing figure, though a tragic one. He nearly destroyed his early career with an addiction to cocaine, a substance he had been testing for its anesthetic power. After being treated for the problem—with morphine, to which he also became addicted—a friend found him a job at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1886.
Halsted quickly showed himself to be brilliant and fastidious, and the hospital appointed him its first chief surgeon. At his side was Caroline Hampton, the nurse in charge of his operating theater. Hampton was born in South Carolina and grew up on a plantation that was burned down in 1865 by Union troops. Impoverished, she left her family to enroll in nursing school at New York Hospital, and relocated to Baltimore for work.
Halsted found Hampton a capable and “unusually efficient woman,” and so it was with some distress that he learned that, after surgeries, she would develop dermatitis from mercuric chloride, the antiseptic Halsted used in surgery. Noting her plight, the normally reserved doctor took the gallant step, not of replacing the nurse, but of asking the Goodyear Rubber Company to make two sets of thin rubber gauntlets—gloves with extended cuffs—expressly for Hampton. “On trial these proved to be so satisfactory that additional gloves were ordered,” he noted.
Their colleague William Osler, often described as the father of modern medicine, began to observe that relations between the two might be veering from the strictly professional. “One Sunday morning I went in the Pathological Laboratory and found Dr. Halsted teaching her osteology—demonstrating the fibula. I then knew all was ‘up with him.’” A week after that, the two announced their engagement, and the couple were married in 1890.
It took another seven years for gloves to catch on widely among surgeons. Though Halsted used antiseptics during surgery and believed that minimizing infection could be done through the use of small, clean cuts, he found that the bulky early gloves interfered with manual dexterity. It was Halsted’s colleague Joseph Bloodgood, the director of surgical pathology, who showed that they greatly reduced the risk of infection. Later, Halsted wondered how “we could have been so blind as not to have perceived the necessity for wearing them invariably at the operating table.”
The Halsteds remained married until William’s death in 1922; Caroline died two months after him. Their legacy partly lives on in research on the gloves they helped bring about. Most recently, that work has focused on the tendency of gloves to become perforated during procedures. That happens as often as 17% of the time, and it has led to research into embedded disinfectants, double gloving and new glove models that can indicate when they have been punctured
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