The historical novelist’s nightmare

If you’ve followed my ramblings at all you’re aware that I take research really seriously. Most historical novelists have this quirk, in my experience. Most of us have at least a dollop of ocd, would be my guess.

When I’m working out themes or major plot lines I am especially careful with my background research. So for example, I read widely about the development of sterile techniques in medicine after Lister’s work began to be accepted. Something that really jumped out at me early in my research was the fact that until late in the 1800s doctors and nurses operated with bare hands. There were no rubber gloves, and so they had to dig right in, bare handed. The idea makes me a little woozy, to be truthful. I can watch any kind of surgery without a problem, but I can’t quite cope with the idea of a bare hand digging into an abdomen to locate a tumor. 

Because physicians and nurses understood about contagion and the importance of sterile technique, they went to extremes in washing their hands. They used a combination of antibacterial solutions, many of which were highly abrasive and corrosive, which played havoc with skin and nails and caused all kinds of problems. This is actually a famous paragraph in the history of medical science, written by William Halsted (full citation to be found here).

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. On trial these proved to be so satisfactory that additional gloves were ordered. In the autumn, on my return to town, an assistant who passed the instruments and threaded the needles was also provided with rubber gloves to wear at the operations. At first the operator wore them only when exploratory incisions into joints were made. After a time the assistants became so accustomed to working in gloves that they also wore them as operators and would remark that they seemed to be less expert with the bare hands than with the gloved hands.

an original surgical rubber glove
an original surgical rubber glove

It wasn’t until 1892 this venture started by Halsted came to pass and the first rubber gloves were used in surgery — by the nurse Halsted mentions in the excerpt above, the woman we went on to marry in a twist worthy of any romance novel. Dermatitis My Love.  You can read the whole story of how he circumvented this problem in an article called Venus & Aesculapius: The Gloves of Love at Discovery Magazine.  

it wasn’t until the end of the century that sterile gloves were widely used by surgeons as well as nurses. 

If you have read The Gilded Hour you will remember that both Anna and Sophie deal with this issue, which will evolve into a bigger plot point in Where the Light Enters.  

Now, with all that in mind, consider this excerpt I came across today:

chronology-gloves

My blood pressure must have jumped twenty points when I read that. Now, I knew this had to be a mistake — which it is — but it certainly got my attention because if it were true and rubber gloves had been in use in operating rooms by 1882, I’d have some finagling to do. 

Consider this a tempest in a teapot, if you like. I think of it as a reminder (to myself) that my ocd actually serves a good purpose. 

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