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Dr. Michaels' Blog

Why is it called Plastic Surgery? Is It Because You Put Plastic Things In People?


When patients ask why is it called “plastic” surgery, I usually reply, “We had plastic before plastic had plastic.”  The term plastic means to mold, and is from the Greek word plastikos. It was first used to describe a specialty of surgery in 1837.

The first plastic, on the other hand, was made by Alexander Parkes in 1855 by mixing cellulose and nitric acid to produce Parkesine, more commonly known as Celluloid. Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented the first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, in 1907.

My favorite definition of plastic surgery was written Gaspare Tagliacozzi in 1597:

“We restore, repair, and make whole those parts…which fortune has taken away, not so much that they may delight the eye, but that they may buoy up the spirit and help the mind of the afflicted.” 

Gaspare Tagliacozzi (1545-1599) devised a nasal reconstruction using the tissues of the inner arm, now referred to as “The Italian Method.” This method has essentially been replaced by a technique devised by an Indian surgeon named Sushruta Samhita over 2000 years ago. Sushruta’s original operation used skin from the forehead and blood vessels to make a new nose.

Today plastic surgery encompasses cosmetic surgery, reconstructive surgery after cancer and accidents, microsurgery, craniofacial surgery to fix birth defects like cleft lips, and branches of transplant surgery. And sometimes, plastic surgeons actually do put plastic things—plastic-like implants, anyway—into their patients.