At the end of the 19th century, doctors performed surgery bare-knuckled, sometimes literally up to their elbows in blood and guts.
For Valentine’s Day, this is the story of how a romantic gesture helped make surgical gloves standard equipment in operating rooms across America.
By the late 1800s, germ theory was well known, still, too many patients died because of post-surgery infection. Doctors were aware of the risks of infection but weren’t great at preventing it, said Neil Grauer, a writer for several publications at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
In the surgery suites of that time, surgeons dipped their hands and instruments into antiseptic solutions to keep germs at bay. Other physicians were still following the principles established by British surgeon Joseph Lister, such as spraying the surgery suite with carbolic acid.
At Johns Hopkins, innovator and renowned surgeon William Halsted noticed the affects of the harsh chemicals.
“In the winter of 1889 and 1890—I cannot recall the month—the nurse in charge of my operating-room complained that the solutions of mercuric chloride produced a dermatitis of her arms and hands. As she was an unusually efficient woman, I gave the matter my consideration and one day in New York requested the Goodyear Rubber Company to make as an experiment two pair of thin rubber gloves with gauntlets,” Halsted later said.
That nurse was Caroline Hampton, the wealthy niece of a confederate general. She eventually became Halsted’s wife.
In one of the many histories of Hopkins, there’s a story that founding professor William Osler spotted Hampton and Halsted at the hospital.
“Kind of in a corner chatting very amiably, and he said: ‘Ah, ha, I suspect romance is brewing,'” said Grauer, a de facto historian at Hopkins Medicine.
In a sepia-colored photo, Hampton looks prim and demure in her white nurses uniform, but all reports suggest she was an uncommonly independent woman.
She wore the gloves Halsted gave her, and they protected her hands. Seeing that, some junior surgeons began wearing them too. There’s an old pair of gloves from that time preserved under plastic at the William Halsted Museum in Baltimore.
They are large and look like a gauntlet you might throw down before a fight–nothing like the pliable gloves surgeons wear today.
Neil Grauer says it was years before it dawned on most doctors that Halsted’s gloves could help slow the spread of infection and save lives.
“Everyone prior to that everyone was doing the same thing every day and never stepping back and thinking about how things could be done differently,” said Ralph Hruban, a Hopkins physician, who produced a documentary about Halsted’s life.
The William Halsted Museum is behind a locked heavy door at Hopkins Hospital. It’s a partly wood-paneled room with pictures of Hampton and Halsted on the walls. It’s decorated with antiques that belonged to the couple.
Halsted’s top hat and ornate walking canes are there. An iconic portrait of him is on the back wall. He was bald, had a walrus mustache, and wore rimless pince-nez glasses. In the painting he looks a bit pinched and tight-lipped, but Hruban said he loves that picture.
“It shows him with beautiful blue eyes, this serious expression on his face,” Hruban said. “So you can imagine an impeccably dressed, serious senior Dr. Halsted.”
He became the father of modern surgery in America, and the museum is a one-room tribute to the man—and a long list of medical breakthroughs, including breast-cancer surgery.
When Halsted was first training, a good surgeon was a quick surgeon.
“Before anesthesia you had to be fast, if you were going to cut somebody open, or cut off their leg, they wanted it done fast,” Grauer said.
Halsted pioneered a slow, methodic approach—called “safe surgery.”
His real contributions and the lore about him are so great that in 2014 Halsted was the inspiration for a new TV show on Cinemax—”The Knick.” Starring Clive Owen, the series focuses on the world of a brilliant doctor who happens to be addicted to cocaine. Owen’s character, John Thackery, struggles privately with drugs while at the same time building a prolific career.
That part of the story was true for Halsted, too. Early in his career, he was looking for new ways to numb nerves and block his patients’ pain. So, he experimented on himself with cocaine, and eventually became addicted.
Halsted tried many things—even morphine—to kick his cocaine habit, but the history books suggest he never shook his addiction. When he arrived at John Hopkins he’d just finished a seven-month stay at a sanatorium.
Filmmaker Ralph Hruban says when Halsted arrived at Johns Hopkins he was a changed man—taciturn, more reserved.
“The irony, or beauty of it is that he became a much slower person. In New York he was bold and daring and quick in the operating room, and in Baltimore he was slow and meticulous and precise,” Hruban said.
The story of the surgeon, the nurse and the gloves has been retold and romanticized many times, and the tale sometimes gets overblown: Halsted was not the first doctor to use gloves in surgery. But his thoughtful gesture for his soon-to-be wife did help popularize surgical gloves in the United States.
At thoughtful gesture, yes. But, was it also a romantic gesture? Historian Neil Grauer is skeptical.
“Possibly romantic. The Halsteds were a devoted couple but they led very separate lives,” he said.
At their home in Baltimore’s posh Bolton Hill neighborhood, they had separate rooms on separate floors.
“And they would meet around 7 o’clock and have dinner, talk until 8:30, then retire to separate quarters,” Grauer said. “I suppose some married couples would says that’s a great idea.”
Who knows what constitutes romance in a marriage, but Ralph Hruban says he particularly likes one image of the old surgeon picking dahlias outside the couple’s summer home in North Carolina.
“He was out there in his pajamas, his slippers were wet. She said: ‘William you are getting your slippers wet.'”
The story goes that Halsted took his slippers off but continued picking flowers in his pajamas.