A History of Plastic Surgery

Plastic Surgery Through the Ages

Cinemax's  The Knick

Cinemax's The Knick

I fell in love with Cinemax's new show, The Knickwhich revolves around cutting edge surgeons in downtown New York at the fictional 'Knickerbocker Hospital' in 1900. Beyond loving a cast that is easy on the eyes, Steven Soderberg’s directorial talent, and Cliff Martinez’s score, each episode intrigued me, as I relished seeing what “modern medicine” looked like at the turn of the century. The show's creators seem to delight in illuminating procedures and techniques that feel both antiquated extremely revolutionary.

One of the more shocking yet accurate story lines highlighted a nose reconstruction to repair one of the devastating side-effects of syphilis.

Amazed at what doctors were attempting--with anesthesia and disinfectant only newly introduced!---and at how far modern plastic surgery has come in a relatively short amount of time, I decided to dig in and take a look back at the history of plastic surgery:


Plastic Surgery, A Timeline

6000 - 3400 BC: Surgical rhinoplasty referenced in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, a transcription of ancient Egyptian medical texts. It is the oldest medical journal known in existence

500 BC: Inda's ayurvedic physician Sushruta sculpts skin for patients who were amputated or marred as a result of religious or military punishment.  His technique of using a forehead flap as reconstructive material for rhinoplasty is in practice for hundreds of years and is known as “The Indian Method.”

320-400 AD: Facial defect reconstructions are studied and practiced by royal physician, Oribasius in the Byzantine Empire.

1415: The “Italian Method” of rhinoplasty replaces Sushruta's "Indian Method” during the Italian Renaissance. This ‘upgraded’ version of the procedure by Antonio Branca, involves skin from a patient's own upper arm grafted onto the nose over the course of 21 days. (While the skin is still attached!) This procedure was still in practice in the 1900s, which The Knick played up in that fascinating episode referenced earlier. (Seriously- best new show on TV.)

Beware! Noses reconstructed at this time were still at risk of coming unattached if the patient were to blow his or her nose too hard. Yikes.


1818:Ever wonder why we call it "plastic" surgery?  This term plastic refers to the state of being malleable and sculpting.  German surgeon Carl Ferdinand von Graefe popularized the term in his publication, Rhinoplastik, published this year.

1840s:Ether becomes a popular way to numb pain during surgery.  Finally!

1862: Louis Pasteur introduces the 'theory of infection', concluding that microbes are responsible for infection and disease.  Surgeons begin using carbolic acid at the incision site for cleaning and disinfecting. Yay!

1880-1909: The increased understanding of blood clotting, blood group types, and the invention and increased use of antibiotics make elective surgeries possible.

1890s: Breast enhancements are attempted with paraffin injections, but it leaks to other parts of the body and the procedure is abandoned by doctors, though reportedly still attempted by prostitutes as recently as the 1940s!

1962:First silicone breast augmentation surgery. The successful experiment by surgeons Frank Gerow and Thomas Cronin was performed on Timmie Jean Lindsey in Houston, Texas.

1976: The dawn of modern liposuction developed by Drs. Gorgio and Arpad Fischer.

1982:Liposuction technique is enhanced by Dr. Yves-Gerard Illouz.

2010:First full-face transplant performed in Spain. The procedure took 30 doctors 24 hours to complete.

2013:Plastic surgery is pretty darn popular. According to the American Society for Plastic Surgery, there were over 11 million surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures performed in the United States in 2013. The most popular surgical procedure in 2013 was liposuction. Breast augmentation was the second most popular procedure, and buttock augmentation and labiaplasty are increasing in popularity rapidly, with a 58% and 44% increase, respectively, over 2012.

Sources: American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, BBC.com, Marie Claire, National Institutes of Health, Wikipedia, Mental Floss, About.Com

This post is presented to the Girl Around Town audience in partnership with Smart Beauty Guide and the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.


Posted on October 14, 2014 .