“An Optimal Relationship of Familiarity and Trust”: Operating Room Nurses’ Material Knowledge of Surgical Instruments (1900–1975)





Nursing History, Material Culture, Surgical Instruments, Surgical Nursing, 20th Century


This article investigates the development of nurses’ knowledge of surgical instruments in the twentieth century. Material knowledge has been an overlooked area of nursing history. Yet surgical nurses in particular gained a great amount of knowledge about the material qualities, handling, manoeuvring, and arranging of many different types and varieties of surgical instruments. By studying objects, film, handbooks, and the first Dutch journal for surgical nurses, this article focuses on three areas of material “literacy”, using the Dutch context as a case study. First, it explores the way nurses had to understand and work with different materials before, during and after operations. Second, it discusses training in dealing with instruments. And third, it considers the explicit need for and discussions around uniformity and standards for surgical instruments, which show the professionalisation of surgical nursing during the 1960s and 1970s. By taking a fresh look at surgical instruments from the nurses’ perspective, a new picture emerges, revealing the importance of surgical instruments for nursing history.