Nurses were expected to know every medical instrument and its use.

An experienced nurse teaching a student nurse the various instruments, 1950s, Alumni Association Collection. 

Gut Sutures

There were several types of sutures, but gut sutures were the most common before 1960. Nurses had to thread the suture needles by hand before surgery.  Gut sutures were popular because of their elasticity, knot security, utility in the presence of infection, and absorbability. Gut material, contrary to popular belief, was from the intestines of sheep or cattle and not from cats. The origins of the term “catgut” appear to come from “kitgut,” a word derived from “kit” for “fiddle.”

Gut sutures, glass and gut, Ethicon Company, 1930s-1950s, 1997.228.1,1997.228.2, Alumni Association Collection.

“Gowned and Gloved”

Surgical procedures required that anyone assisting with a surgery be as clean, sterile, and aseptic as possible. The medical gowns and gloves were cleaned and sterilized after each use and then reused.

Unidentified nurse assisting another nurse with her gown, 1950s, Alumni Association Collection.

Forceps Holder

Instruments were cleaned after every surgery. The nurse would first wash the instruments with soap and water and then soak them in carbolic acid. Great care was taken to keep instruments from touching and to handle them as little as possible.

Forceps holder, stainless steel, 1940s, 1997.22.1, Alumni Association Collection.


The autoclave was a device used to steam and sterilize the cloth scrub gowns, table coverings, and sheets after each use. One of the many pre-surgery duties of a nurse was to autoclave the surgery cloths and scrubs.

An autoclave in University Hospital, unknown date, Alumni Association Collection.



Nurses were trained to have three basins ready for surgeries. One basin was used for discarded dressings and bandages, one for fluid to wash the wound, and one like this cresent-shaped basin for catching discharge from the wound.

Basin, metal, 1930s-1950s, 1997.209.1, Alumni Association Collection.


Cleanliness and antiseptic sterilization have been important surgical rules since the 1890s. Many nurses recall the endless scrubbing sessions to prepare for surgeries.

Unnamed nurse scrubbing, 1950, Alumni Association Collection.

Unidentified nurses scrubbing before surgery, 1975, 1975 Pledge.

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