Saving Faces: The History of Plastic Surgery

Saving Faces: The History of Plastic Surgery

When you hear plastic surgery mentioned, likely the first associations that come to mind are face lifts, breast augmentation, and tummy tucks. However, plastic surgery is much more than just aesthetic changes in appearance. Most plastic surgery involves restoring form and function to damaged tissue. The adjective “plastic” has a Greek origin which means to reshape or sculpt malleable flesh. While the term “plastic surgery” first appeared in 1839, the practice has been around for thousands of years.

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From the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt to India and the Middle East, reconstruction surgeries such as to repair a broken nose occurred perhaps as early as 2500 BC if not before, depending on the age and authorship of a papyrus text describing the procedure. Ancient Egyptians would alter the bodies of dead pharaohs to ensure they were recognized in the afterlife. Among those to have such procedures were Ramses II whose nose was augmented, and Queen Nunjmet, whose cheeks and belly were stuffed with bandages in a manner such as implants might be used for today.


Walter Yeo, a World War I era plastic surgery patient.

Ancient Greeks developed plastic surgery techniques, which were later learned and practiced by the Ancient Romans. In a culture which included getting nude in front of others to bathe, the Romans had a reason to be self-conscious of how their bodies looked. The human body was revered in Ancient Roman culture, and any abnormalities, especially those of the genitalia, created public shame. Romans were also particularly shamed by scars on the back, which could indicate cowardice in battle or beatings as a slave. Some slaves may have sought to have their brands removed through plastic surgery, and gladiators sought to have lost noses and ears repaired as best a surgeon could manage.

Even the modern uses for plastic surgery, such as cosmetic breast enhancement, got their start earlier than a person might suspect. Believe it or not, breast augmentation was first developed around 1899 and consisted of injecting the breasts with beeswax, paraffin, or vegetable oil. Of course these methods caused adverse health effects and likely a few deaths. Even later versions of breast implants using encapsulated silicon have caused health concerns and lost FDA approval in the past few decades. Cosmetic surgery in and of itself often gives the field of plastic surgery a very public black eye even now, as such procedures are commonly associated with narcissism and vanity, and are portrayed as doctors subjecting patients to unnecessary medical risk.

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But an indisputably positive purpose for the skills of plastic surgeons is reconstruction surgery performed on soldiers who have been disfigured in war. A man considered to be a founding father of modern plastic surgery was Dr. Varaztad Kazanjian, an Armenian immigrant to the United States who was a dentist, an oral surgeon, and became the first Professor of Plastic Surgery at Harvard Medical School. His techniques for reconstructing the faces of World War I soldiers who received disfiguring facial wounds on the battlefields of France led to international fame and a successful career.

Another surgeon who has been called a founder of plastic surgery is Sir Harold Gillies, a British surgeon who is credited as the first surgeon to use skin grafts from undamaged areas of the body. Mr. Walter Yeo, a gunnery warrant officer serving on the HMS Warspite, is credited as being the very first person to successfully receive modern plastic surgery when he was treated by Gillies in 1917. Yeo’s face was badly disfigured during the Battle of Jutland in World War I. The Daily Mail newspaper in the UK ran an article on Mr. Yeo in April 2014 which also announced that researchers are searching for surviving relatives of Mr. Yeo to gain more information about the long-term results of the surgery performed by Sir Gillies.

Bottom Line

Plastic surgery has been around since ancient times, with the modern understanding of plastic surgery largely developing during treatment of wounded soldiers in World War I.

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Randal A. Burd Jr. is a freelance writer, educator, and poet from Missouri. He is also a Kentucky Colonel and a genealogy enthusiast.

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