Stories of Love from Medical History

In honor of Valentine's Day, here are some tidbits from my research for my upcoming book, Exploring American Healthcare Through 50 Historic Treasures, that have to do with courtship or love.
Two blue plastic gloves on a neutral background with their fingers intertwined as if they were holding hands.
Not a historical image, just a fun one.

To start out, I’ll borrow from an instagram post I made a while back, and tell you everyone’s favorite medical history love story.* In the late 19th century, antiseptic practice in the operating room has just come into fashion, including doctors and nurses washing their hands with carbolic acid. The surgeon who invented rubber gloves, William Halsted, did so because a nurse he worked with was having a skin reaction from the antiseptic solution. A year later, she married him. I’ve heard conflicting reports as to whether they had been courting before the gloves! 

This came up in my research for a chapter on carbolic acid and early antiseptic techniques. Halsted also came up in when I was researching for a chapter on the medical uses of cocaine. If you want to know more about him, I highly recommend the episode of the podcast Sawbones, "The Man Behind the Knick.

There are many moments when I'm working on the book when I wish the book could be longer (that's a form of love too, I guess!) One of the chapters I really struggled with keeping short was the one on hormonal birth control pills, or "The Pill." It was released in the 1960s, but to understand the cultural as well as medical ramifications, one has to look at courtship and sexuality. Sexual mores in the United States before the 1960s, while they varied by decade, could be summarized as “good girls don’t.” Cultural and legal regulation of sexuality was overwhelmingly focused on the sexual behavior of women, especially unmarried women. Even as attitudes became more relaxed, women experienced cultural and personal anxiety around unmarried sexual activities. Some women felt that planning for a sexual encounter was a bigger sign of promiscuity than being persuaded in the moment. They saw birth control methods that involved forethought as indicative of overly free sexuality. A similar idea showed up in pop culture, like the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” released well before pill in 1944. While today the dialogue in the song strikes many as coercive, at the time many listeners heard it as a playful game of coercion and denial that allowed a woman to extend a date while telling herself and others that she hadn’t planned the encounter.

For more on courtship and sexuality, I recommend Beth L. Bailey's From Front Porch to Back Seat. For more on birth control, check out America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation by Elaine Tyler May if you want something quick and digestible, or Linda Gordon's The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America for something more in-depth.

I encounter stories of familial love while researching at least as often as romantic or sexual love. Joseph Lister, often thought of as the founder of the practical applications of germ theory, was an eminent surgeon in his day. He once operated on Queen Victoria, but that was not the operation with the highest personal stakes for him. He also operated on his own sister, Isabellea Pim, for breast cancer. At that point, he had removed many tumors but never one in the breast. He did it on her request, because she trusted him. Lister’s mentors, who included his boss James Syme (who was also his father-in-law), thought her cancer was inoperable. Isabella survived the operation and lived three more years, until the cancer came back in her liver. 

Black and white photograph of Joseph Lister, an English man in a suit with bushy white muttonchops.
Of the variety of images available of Joseph Lister, this one to me
 looks most like the face of a man who spent years trying to
get surgeons not to operate with dirty scalpels.
For more, I recommend Lindsey Fitzharris's colorful biography of Lister, The Butchering Art.

Last but not least -- I encountered this again while researching for a chapter on the heart-lung machine and open-heart surgery, but I had already heard about it from creating a museum exhibit on the same subject. Open-heart surgery requires a mechanism, today a machine, that allows blood to flow and carry oxygen to the body without going through the heart. In the early days of these surgeries, a few hospitals did a procedure that was very controversial among surgeons. Some raged that it had a 200% mortality rate, because it was rarely successful. Still, it's a story of love. The procedure was to connect a young child undergoing surgery for life-threatening heart conditions to one of the child's parents, so the parent's heart was pumping for them both throughout the operation.

*If you have a different favorite medical history love story, I want to know about it!