It will probably come as no surprise to learn that people have been willing to engage in a variety of uncomfortable, even dangerous, practices to change their looks for thousands of years. A quick Internet search on the Chinese custom of foot binding, popular from the 1300’s to the early 1900’s (as recently as 100 years ago!), will verify the degree to which people would go to follow the norms of the day.
It may be a bit of a surprise, however, to find out that some of the earliest known plastic surgery was performed much earlier than foot binding. When writing about the origins of plastic surgery, most historians agree that the practice arose in India around 800 B.C. At that time, artisans performed a kind of rhinoplasty, or nose surgery, to restore the looks of those who suffered amputation as punishment.
The field of plastic surgery evolved very slowly at first. In Italy in the 1500’s, Gasparo Tagliacozzi also performed rhinoplasty for those needing reconstruction. He is sometimes referred to as the “father of plastic surgery.”
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), the first American plastic surgeon of the modern age was Dr. John Mettauer. In 1827, with surgical tools of his own design, Dr. Mettauer performed the first cleft palate surgery in the West.
World War I moved the field forward as the number of soldiers needing reconstruction following injury was enormous. Surgeons began to acquire experience in repairing facial trauma in particular. Two European surgeons who came to the U.S. following the First World War advanced the profession even further, joining with others to establish the ASPS in 1931. By this time, surgery for purely aesthetic reasons was becoming more common as well.
This may have been around the time some confusion in terms began to arise. It’s helpful to know that the word “plastic” in the term “plastic surgery” does not mean the artificial substance you might think it means. It derives from the Greek word “plastikos,” meaning to shape or mold.