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The modern rise of surgery: gloves as a technology of control

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Seventeenth Annual Hans Rausing Lecture

The history of surgical gloves embodies the main strategies at work in the modern rise of surgery. In the course of the 19th century, surgeons learned to treat numerous injuries and disorders by interventions in all areas of the living body. Rather than being determined simply by the power of great ideas or the logic of technical progress, this transformation of surgery was made possible by a network of control technologies that enhanced manipulability and visibility. Two principles of control – manual control and aseptic control – clashed in a major debate over surgical gloves. Surgeons assessed the pros and cons of the different strategies as they tried to resolve the conflict by adjusting gloves’ materials, design and use. We should not dismiss these debates as if they concerned mere technical details, for they reveal the dynamics of the control network. They show that the rise of surgery was an open-ended process, shaped by a multiplicity of practical, local concerns, and full of contradictions and compromises. This analysis places surgical innovation alongside other areas, such as science and industry, in which control played a major role as part of the emergence of modern societies in the same time period.

This talk is part of the Rausing Lecture series.

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