A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why do they call it "plastic" surgery?

Dear Straight Dope:

Why do they call plastic surgery "plastic" surgery? What does plastic have to do with anything? As a child I thought they were grafting plastic onto people or something. Of course some people LOOK like plastic after too much plastic surgery, but where did this term come from? Thanks!

Plastic surgery considerably pre-dates the use of polymers to make the average Barbie doll. Here's what the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons says in a short history available on their website (www.plasticsurgery.org) :

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 work "plastikos," which means to mold or give form. Plastic surgery includes both the reconstructive and aesthetic subspecialties.

The oldest plastic surgery probably involved nasal reconstruction. In India, one Sushruta (600 B.C) performed operations using forehead skin to reconstruct noses which had been amputated as punishment for criminals. Later during the 15th century the Branca family became famous in Sicily for adopting Sushruta's method of nasal repair, whilst in northern Italy Gaspare Tagliacozzi (1545-1599) of Bologna devised a method of using skin from the upper inner arm.

The term "plastique" was probably first used by Desault, a French surgeon in 1798. But it was the publication of the surgical manual "Handbuch der plastischen Chirurgie" by Ziess in 1838 that established the name.

An interesting side note: sculpture and ceramics have been known as the "plastic" arts because they involved reshaping materials.

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