In 1889, Caroline Hampton was a talented young nurse working at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was the chief nurse in the medical team working with William Halsted, one of the founders of the hospital and a well-known surgeon. After a few months of assisting in the operating room, Caroline was on the verge of resigning from her position due to painful eczema and dermatitis she had developed as a result of following Halsted’s strict hygienic procedure that included disinfecting hands and instruments with multiple chemical solutions. The surgeon didn’t want to part with his favorite assistant, so he came up with a brilliant idea:
“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. (…) 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.”
The use of rubber gloves saved not only the nurse’s hands, but also patients’ health – the hospital reduced the post-op infection rates from 17% to 2%. A few years after Halsted introduced his invention, the gloves were improved and sterilized by our champion of the germ theory of disease – Joseph Lister.
The only thing the gloves didn’t save was the nurse’s position at the hospital. Caroline and William fell in love and got married in June of 1890. At that point, she had to resign from her job, as it was seen unfit for a married woman to continue to work. It is said that their marriage was quite successful, and they were seen as a pair of eccentrics, enjoying the company of their pets and unusual hobbies.
While working in Vienna General Hospital in the 1840s, Ignaz Semmelweis noticed a curious thing – the mortality rate of new mothers was a lot higher in wards supervised by doctors 👨⚕️compared to those supervised by midwives 👩⚕️. After some investigating, he found the source of the problem – only doctors had access to both maternity wards and autopsy tables. Semmelweis quickly developed a theory of what he called “cadaverous particles” 🧟♀️🧟♀️ and introduced rigorous handwashing 🧼 in his clinics. Unfortunately, even though his method worked spectacularly well, he was ridiculed by most of the medical professionals until his death in a lunatic asylum. 💀
John Snow was an English physician, 👨⚕️ best known for finding the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho,1854. By putting all known cholera cases on a map, he found the source of all troubles – a contaminated water pump. 💦 Why was it such a big deal? This discovery not only led to shutting down the pump, but also worked in favor of the budding germ theory of disease. 🦠🦠🦠 Even though Snow himself didn’t know that at the time, he contributed to the birth of epidemiology. 🔬
The third episode of the newest Victoria season talks about the Snow’s cholera investigation, so check it out! (the series doesn’t always stick well to the facts, though, you’ve been warned) 😀
Erethism, more commonly known as mad hatter disease, 🎩 is caused by mercury poisoning and can cause a variety of symptoms including tremors, timidness, anxiety, and even hallucinations. 🧚♀️It was quite common among hat-makers as they were exposed to mercury used in the manufacturing of felt hats.
Even though the Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 🐛doesn’t display all of these symptoms, his creation might have been inspired by erethism. We know that Lewis Carroll’s uncle, Robert Wilfred Skeffington Lutwidge, was a Lunacy Commissioner supervising Pauper Lunatic Asylums. To keep patients busy, these asylums often organized group activities such as … tea parties. 🧐☕️
The Edwardian Era brought a new craze in plastic surgery – paraffin wax injections.🕯 The promise of a perfect nose👃or chin quickly faded, when it turned out that wax could wander beneath the skin causing infections, blood clots, and even cancer. ☠️
For reference, I learned about upper class women fixing their wax noses in a great BBC documentary series Blood and Guts (there’s also a book available)
After her husband’s death, Mary Shelley kept his calcified heart 💛 in a desk drawer. And even though some modern scholars believe it was just his liver, Mary herself was convinced that she had Percy’s heart. Quite a suitable keepsake for the author of Frankenstein! 🧟♂️
The harrowing conditions in match factories, including the use of highly poisonous ☠️ white phosphorus ☠️, were not a secret in the Victorian times. However, It was not until the matchgirls’ strike of 1888 🗣 that the situation started to get better.