The History of Plastic Surgery

Over the last few years, plastic surgery has increased in popularity to an enormous degree and a number of surgeries performed continues to rise. People receive plastic surgery for various reasons, from a simple desire to like the way they look more to repairing serious deformities or injuries and making their lives easier. While everyone knows what plastic surgery is, it’s much less common to find people who know the extensive history of it, stretching back thousands of years!


In ancient Asia, certain types of plastic surgeries, like rhinoplasties, were fairly common. There was a healer in India known as Sushruta who is considered one of the very first cosmetic surgeons in the world. He was the first person to perform skin grafts, taking skin from another section of the body, often the arm, and using it to reconstruct the nose. He wrote a book, written around the sixth century BC, that clearly details his cosmetic procedures. Rhinoplasties gained popularity in India, often performed on people who had lost their nose, either because of a natural deformity, injury, or attack.


Cosmetic surgery for a broken nose is mentioned in the Edwin Smith papyrus, a text dating back to the Old Kingdom of Egypt between 3000 and 2500 BC. This papyrus was found and translated, then made its way to Europe much later, as did the writings of Sushruta and other ancient medical texts from Asia.


Around first century BC, Roman physicians began experimenting with plastic surgery on gladiators who experienced severe injuries during combat. The Roman cultured highly valued the human form and adamantly believed in a physical ideal. Aulus Cornelius Celsus wrote “De Medicina,” a text that discusses surgical techniques such as facial reconstructions and breast augmentations.


Once the Roman Empire fell and the Church became the highest power for most of Europe, plastic surgeries were rarely performed, because Church doctrine forbade alterations to the body.


In the beginning of the 1900s, plastic surgery once more gained popularity. Significant advancements were made during the two world wars, particularly WWI. With the invention of anesthesia in the mid-1800s, operations could be performed with considerably less pain, though large risks were involved and the procedures were usually only done to fix a medical or severe cosmetic issue, such as loss of facial features due to war. After WWI, American doctors who from the war began using their newfound knowledge with the public, which led to the beginning of purely cosmetic plastic surgeries performed on people who were unhappy with their natural look.

During the 1900s, plastic surgery became established in hospitals and universities, and the American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS) was eventually created. Now, over 14 million plastic surgeries are performed each year in the United States, with cosmetic surgeries rising in popularity in many other countries as well.