John D. Bridgers M.D.
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Hand in Glove

Hand In Glove
The Advent of Surgical Gloves

One of the great thrills of my life was learning that I had been accepted to attend The Duke University School of Medicine.

At the time, World War II was over but I was still acting as Chief Flight Instructor for the scout-bomber squadron in the Advanced Training Command at Cecil Field at Jacksonville, Florida.

Edie and I had been married earlier that year, she had resigned her position with the Navy as a W.A.V.E. Communication officer, and she was expecting our first child.

So our being on the way to Duke was one of many big changes then underway in our lives.

When classes started in October 1946 I felt that I was becoming part of an old established institution.

Duke had a national reputation and was greatly looked up to in my home state of North Carolina for both its leadership and benevolence -- neither of which arch backers of UNC athletics would agree were much in evidence.

It wasn't until some years later that I would realize the school was really quite young, and that only about a dozen classes had graduated prior to our matriculation.

There were still many physicians around, both on campus and as visitors, who were products of the first years, and they could always be counted on for a few stories.

One of the visiting doctors told us of a Durham general practitioner who had done some part-time teaching.

The School of Medicine had been able to get off to a flying start because of the sterling faculty brought in at its start in the early 1930's.

Great care and superlative judgment had gone into the selection of Dr. Wilbert Davison as the first dean.

He was a product of Johns Hopkins and a protégé of Sir William Osler, probably the most renowned physician of his day.

Dr. Davison brought the Duke the second tier of teachers from Hopkins, men who were young but had prolonged incubation in a medical academic service that had become the model for the western world.

As we came to understand it this was not exactly what the medical brotherhood of Durham expected as the school was being organized.

They felt they would be doing a lion's share of the teaching.

When the doors opened, however, Dr. Davison, with his usual aplomb and tact, made the outside practitioners welcome, although they were not viewed as fountains of priceless clinical lore by the full-time faculty -- or by the students.

To fully appreciate this story the status of some clinical procedures need be understood.

For instance, the use of rubber gloves for surgery is not an ancient heritage.

Dr. Halsted, the Professor of Surgery at Hopkins -- and the mentor of the Duke surgical group -- had championed aseptic techniques in the operating room.

He made certain the use of carbolic acid as an antiseptic to be used on the operator's hands prior to surgery.

This was effective but very hard on the hands, and the nurses particularly resented their hands staying raw from the pre-surgical scrubs.

The chief operating room nurse, who would in time become Mrs. Halsted, thought of wearing rubber gloves and scrubbing them with carbolic acid rather than her hands.

It worked and all the nurses adopted the practice as the raw hands healed.

Dr. Halsted was quoted as having said:  "What's good for the geese should be good for the ganders".

So all the operating room personnel began using rubber gloves, and this practice spread across the medical world.

Which brings us back to the story at hand.

One of the school's early graduates told of an obstetrical lecture being given by one of the visiting practitioners on the subject of home deliveries.

Came time for questions and answers.

One student asked:  "Doctor, do you use gloves for home delivery?"

The lecturer thought it over and answered:  "Well, if I get there in time I take them off!"




April 18, 1996


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John D. Bridgers M.D. by Carl Bridgers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Copyright ©