By Bob Kaster,
Yreka, CA, April, 2021

“Good morning listeners, I’m intrepid reporter Emil Schlumpp, and welcome to this week’s episode of Discover a Small World You Didn’t Know Existed, NPR’s exciting provocative hard-hitting show that asks a random person on the street penetrating questions about a narrow unimportant topic you could care less about. And today’s topic is (drum roll): disposable plastic medical gloves!!

“We are standing on the busy corner of Miner and Broadway Streets and will pose this week’s inquiry to the first person who has the misfortune to come by … ah, here comes someone now. Excuse me sir, I’m intrepid reporter Emil Schlumpp, and we would like to get your opinions on our exciting topic of the week. Your name sir?”

“Uh, what?”

“Your name. What is your name, sir?”

“Uh, Bob. My name’s Bob.”

“Okay Rob, now, just to let you know, we’re live, broadcasting to millions of listeners worldwide. So, the question for you, sir, is what is your opinion of … disposable plastic medical gloves!?”

“Uh, well. I think they’re pretty cool. Actually, I’m glad you asked, I hadn’t really thought about them since my college days in the 60’s. I had a summer job in San Jose working for the guy who invented them.”

“Uh … say again, you what?”

“Yeah. His name was Bill. Bill Abildgaard. He invented them. Well, he sorta invented them. They’d been invented before, but he invented better ones … lightweight and disposable, made of plastic. Before that, they were made of rubber. He was a doctor, worked with my dad. A short, stocky guy. He was pissed because his chubby hands wouldn’t fit into the conventional surgical gloves they used back then, so he decided to invent his own. He sculpted ceramic molds shaped like human hands and dipped them into a liquid mixture he developed himself, made up of chemical ingredients like polymers and plasticizers … stuff like that. Then he baked them in the oven in his kitchen, kinda made a mess.”

“I can imagine. What happened next?”

“Well, his wife almost divorced him. But when she didn’t, he decided to build a factory on 13th Street in north San Jose. Besides his medical degree, he also had an engineering degree, so he designed the factory himself. It was quite a deal. This huge apparatus that looked sorta like a roller coaster. It was inside an old warehouse. The conveyor belt had these hand-shaped molds of varying sizes dangling from it as it jiggled along. It swooped down and dipped the hands into a vat of heated liquid stuff, then rose back up again and the hands would go through a large oven, which baked and dried ‘em, sort of like a train going through a tunnel. Then it would go through another tunnel where talcum powder was sprayed on ‘em. Then it would dip back down again and pass by three employees seated alongside. The employees would grab the tops of the gloves as they jiggled by and pull downward, stripping the finished gloves off the molds. This reversed the gloves inside-out, or really outside-in, so that now the powder was inside. Then they would toss them into various bins depending on their size.”

“Say, Rob, that’s really fascinating. I’m sure our listeners out there are thrilled.”

“It’s Bob; but yeah, it was surreal. Sometimes I had nightmares, dreaming of writhing severed human hands, dangling from this conveyor belt, screaming as they were dipped in the vat of hot liquid.”

“Well, Rob, so you were there as a college student with a summer job. What were your duties?”

“It’s Bob, but Robert will work; why don’t you try Robert? I had several duties, but the most important was each day I mixed the liquid material that the gloves were made of. One batch a day. I just followed a recipe. The mixing tank was high off the floor, so the liquid could be gravity-fed into the vat that the molds were dipped in. There were solid ingredients and liquid ingredients. The solid ingredients were in the form of a powder in 90-pound bags, sort of like bags of cement, some kind of polymer I guess. The liquids were chemicals that mostly came in 55-gallon drums, but some were smaller quantities, five gallons or ten gallons. I would transport and lift the bags and barrels above the opening in the top of the mixing tank with a fork lift, and dump the contents into the mixing tank. You had to be kind of careful driving that fork lift around with a pallet of 90-pound bags twenty-five feet above the floor. If you stopped or turned too quick … bad, very bad. The formula was proprietary, so the bags and the drums all had encrypted labels, and only Dr. Abildgaard knew what was in them. I just followed the recipe. Three drums of plasticizer A, two drums of plasticizer B, six bags of compound X, and so on. We did one batch a day, which made 100,000 gloves or so.”

“Gosh Rob, I’m sure our listeners are enthralled, were there any accidents?”

“Well Elmo, I only remember one, and I guess you would call it a near miss. When I mixed all the ingredients together to make a batch, I kept track in my head. I didn’t have a checklist. One day I had the whole batch mixed together, but then I second-guessed whether I got it right. I was pretty sure I mixed it correctly, but had a doubt. What should I do? I was afraid if I confessed that I might have mixed it wrong, I’d be fired. I finally told Dr. Abildgaard that I might have screwed up. He immediately told me to drain the entire mixture and begin a new batch all over again. He didn’t fire me. Instead, he praised me, and told me I did the right thing. Thinking back on it, one batch of that stuff probably represented a full truck load of gloves, shipped to who knows where. I guess a defective batch of gloves could have terrible consequences for his company, a lot worse than just wasting one batch of liquid.”

“Rob, that’s a wonderful inspirational story. What happened to Dr. Abildgaard’s company?”

“Arno, I’m glad you asked. He sold his company for a gazillion dollars to Becton-Dickinson, an international corporation that manufactures and sells medical products. The company is now called BD. And, you know, the rest is history. Think of all the lightweight plastic gloves now out there. Wikipedia will tell you the first disposable medical gloves were manufactured in 1964 by Ansell. But that’s simply not true. I know. I was there, helping to make them in 1960. And to think I was a small part of it. Next time you are in your urologist’s office, and your doctor has a glove on his hand, and is preparing to check your prostate, you can think of me.”

There was a pregnant pause before Emil Schlumpp said to his listeners, “Thanks for listening to another thrilling episode of Discover a Small World You Didn’t Know Existed. Next week, we will learn all about … shoe laces.”