The History of Cosmetic Surgery

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Valerie DeBenedette, Senior Medical Editor

Valerie DeBenedette is a science writer who specializes in keeping people informed about medicine and their health. She has more than 20 years of experience writing for newspapers, magazines, and websites and has written about most areas of medicine. For many years, she was a contributing writer to Cosmetic Dermatology and to Drug Topics, the leading pharmacy trade magazine. She also was a contributing editor to The Physician and Sportsmedicine for many years. She has written about most fields of medicine, including dermatology, sportsmedicine, ophthalmology, general surgery, orthopedics, and women's health; as well as public health policy and the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, she is the author of Caffeine, a book for young people. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.


July 17 2007

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Cosmetic Surgery History

If you think that nose jobs and similar procedures were invented in the 20th century, you are only off by about 5,000 years. Cosmetic and reconstructive surgery is far more ancient than most people realize.

What's the Difference Between Cosmetic Surgery and Plastic Surgery?

Many people think that since plastics are modern compounds, plastic surgery must be a modern invention as well. But plastic surgery has nothing to do with plastics. Plastic surgery gets its name from the Greek word plastikos, which means "to mold," and is where the moldable substances called plastics also get their name. Plastic surgery can be either reconstructive or cosmetic, or a bit of both. Reconstructive surgery is surgery done to rebuild or replace parts of the body lost to disease, accident, or previous surgery. Cosmetic surgery is surgery to reshape features that are normal in order to improve appearance.

The History of Cosmetic Surgery: The Evolution

Ancient Surgery
In many crucial regards, the history of plastic surgery parallels the history of violence and war. Corrective surgical techniques have often made their greatest progress when violent events created a need for them.

The first written description of plastic or reconstructive surgery is in an Egyptian papyrus from around 3000 BC. The writer described the surgical correction of facial trauma, including jaw and nasal fractures.

Around 600 BC, physicians in Ancient India corrected ears and noses that were lost due to mutilations. Cutting off the nose was often done in warfare or as a form of corporal punishment. In addition to being unsightly, the loss of a nose was considered humiliating, which is why people were willing to have surgical correction at a time when anesthesia didn't exist. Indian doctors used flaps of skin from the cheek or forehead to reconstruct noses that had been cut off. The same techniques were used in Europe in the Middle Ages. Emperor Justinian II of Byzantium had his nose reconstructed after rebels captured him and cut it off in 695 (and allowed him to outlive his nickname of "Slit-Nose"). Similar techniques are still in use for reconstructing a lost nose.

War Creates a Demand for Plastic Surgeons

Huge leaps forward in the treatment of facial and body injuries were made after wars in the 1800s—notably the American Civil War—and the early 1900s. Advances were especially important during World War I. Because of the nature of the trench warfare of that war, where soldiers usually stood in their trenches and only their heads would be exposed, gunshots and explosions seriously disfigured the faces of many soldiers.

Surgeons and dentists dealt with thousands of severely injured men and rapidly learned which plastic surgery techniques worked and which did not as they dealt with skin grafting and rebuilding facial features. Because of their groundbreaking work, plastic reconstructive surgery became a recognized and honored specialty within medicine. More advances in reconstructive surgery were made during World War II.

Cosmetic Surgery Gains Acceptance

However, cosmetic plastic surgery was still in its relative infancy (if you don't count ancient procedures such as tattooing, body piercing, or wrapping the feet of Chinese girl babies to keep them extremely tiny). Before the early 20th century, cosmetic surgery was not something a reputable surgeon would do. Tawdry advertising and commercialization on the part of some shady and unethical surgeons undermined social acceptance for cosmetic surgery. The first nose jobs for aesthetic reasons were performed in the late 1800s, but seeking cosmetic surgery simply to look better or younger was considered a sign of vanity and was stigmatized until well past the 1950s.

Cosmetic and Plastic Surgery Today

However, public acceptance of cosmetic procedures grew during the last half of the 20th century. Surgeons devised new and better ways to remove wrinkles on the face, increase or reduce the size of the bust, straighten a nose, or contour the body. Materials such as silicone, polyethylene and products made from human tissue were found to be safe and effective for reshaping the face and other parts of the body.

Cosmetic plastic surgery also benefited from studies showing the emotional and psychological benefits of improving the appearance. Studies showed that cosmetic surgery could improve a person's outlook on life and boost his or her self-esteem and self-confidence.

Cosmetic surgery became available and affordable for most people in the United States. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, new and innovative techniques were created to reduce the effects of aging on the face and body or to reshape noses, busts and other body parts.