The Early Years

Self-improvement is essential to the nature of mankind. Progress would halt without the individual's pursuit of learning and enlightenment, peace with his or her neighbors and more efficient means to work. Because human beings have always sought self-fulfillment through self-improvement, plastic surgery -- improving and restoring form and function -- may be one of the world's oldest healing arts.

In fact, written evidence cites medical treatment for facial injuries more than 4,000 years ago. Physicians in ancient India were utilizing skin grafts for reconstructive work as early as 800 B.C.

However, progress in plastic surgery, like most of medicine, moved glacially for hundreds of years. It wasn't until the 19th and 20th centuries that the specialty forged ahead both scientifically and within the medical establishment in both Europe and the United States.

America's first plastic surgeon of note was Dr. John Peter Mettauer, who was born in Virginia in 1787. The colorful Dr. Mettauer performed the first cleft palate operation in the New World in 1827 with instruments he designed himself.

War Drives Plastic Surgery Developments

For better or worse, the driving force behind most plastic surgery developments during the late 1800s and early 1900s was war, with the awful injuries it often inflicts on its participants. In fact, it was the "War to End All Wars," World War I, that catapulted plastic surgery into a new and higher realm.

Never before had physicians been required to treat so many and such extensive facial and head injuries. Shattered jaws, blown-off noses and lips and gaping skull wounds caused by modern weapons required innovative restorative procedures. Some of the best medical talent in Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary devoted themselves to restoring the faces and lives of their countrymen during and after World War I. In the United States, plastic surgeons like Varaztad Kazanjian of Boston and Vilray Blair of St. Louis nobly served both their country, and humanity, in those years.

Aesthetic Procedures Also Advance

Aesthetic surgical procedures also developed during this period as physicians realized, in the words of 19th Century American plastic surgeon John Orlando Roe, "how much valuable talent (had) been...buried from human eyes, lost to the world and society by reason of embarrassment...caused by the conscious, or in some cases, unconscious influence of some physical infirmity or deformity or unsightly blemish."

Plastic: To Mold or Give Form

Despite the popular misconception, the word "plastic" in "plastic surgery" does not mean "artificial," but is derived from the ancient Greek word "plastikos," which means to mold or give form. Plastic surgery includes both the reconstructive and aesthetic subspecialties.