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Techniques & Technologies

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Gloves, gowns and clothing

Orthopaedic surgeon John Charnley and his team at work, c. 1960s.

Orthopaedic surgeon John Charnley and his team at work, c. 1960s.

Credits:The John Charnley Trust

Protective clothing shields both the doctor and the patient from the risk of infection. As more was understood about the nature of germ theory and the transmission of infection in hospitals, infection rates were reduced by the adoption of special clothing. In the 1800s, Joseph Lister's surgeons were said to have worn gloves - not to protect the patient, but to protect their own hands from the carbolic acid used to prevent infection by killing germs. Gloves were worn regularly for surgery from the 1920s and surgical gowns were developed around the same time, but they were intended to protect the surgeon's expensive clothes and so were not necessarily changed between patients.

Both transplant and replacement surgery carry particular risks for the patient as the body is exposed to the open air for a considerable period of time. Special surgical clothing was created in the 1960s. Originally designed for orthopaedic surgeons engaged in replacement surgery, body exhaust suits are manufactured from a special fabric and have an exhaust system and hooded mask attached to them so that the expelled air from the surgeon is not spread over the patient. The noise of the exhaust can be loud, so microphones are also installed in the masks, allowing the surgeon to communicate with the surgical team. The practice of wearing two sets of gloves, or ‘double gloving’, is also common among surgeons doing risky surgery. All of these innovations are designed to lower the risk of infection to the patient.

Bibliography

J Anderson and C Timmermann, Devices and Designs (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006)

Glossary:

Transplant

Surgical operation to introduce organ or tissue from one person (the donor) to another (the recipient). It may also refer to the transfer of tissues from one part of a person's body to another part of the same person's body.