A Brief History of Breast Implants

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To get the real story on fake breasts, let's open In The Beginning: A Mouthwatering Guide to the Origins of Everything and turn to the page on implants.

Nowadays, having one's breasts augmented seems nearly as commonplace as having one's hair permed. One of the most frequently performed cosmetic procedures, more than 200,000 U.S. women had the surgery in 2000 alone. But it wasn't always this way: once upon a time, breast augmentation was a highly questionable, semi-experimental procedure that frequently resulted in disfigurement and health-endangering complications. Of course, people subjected themselves to it anyway, jumping on the bandwagon whenever a new method came along.

The story begins in 1890, when Austrian doctor Robert Gersuny kicked things off by injecting paraffin into women's chests. The results looked fine for awhile, but over time grew hard and lumpy. Worse yet, infection rates were alarmingly high, so by the 1920s the procedure had been totally abandoned. In its place, surgeons experimented with the transplantation of fatty tissue from the abdomen and buttocks to the breasts, but the fat was often reabsorbed by the body, leaving the subject with asymmetrical breasts and unsightly scars where the fat had been harvested.

Pains and Needles

While the painful failures scared women away from the surgical methods for some time, that did nothing to stop American worship of the well-endowed woman. Icons like Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner helped solidify the gravity-defying, bombshell-shaped breast as the de rigueur "new look" in the 1940s and 1950s, and many women turned to "falsies" and bra-stuffing to keep up. It didn't take long, however, for surgeons to get out their scalpels and needles again, and in the 1950s women began to have various types of synthetic and polyvinyl sponges implanted. This may have been the worst approach yet: the sponges began to shrink and harden a few months after surgery, and infections, inflammations and a cancer scare eventually doomed the s es to the graveyard of failed breast augmentation therapies.

Pros and Silicones

Increasingly desperate, surgeons in the late 1950s went for a collective Hail Mary. They implanted everything from ivory balls and wool to ox cartilage into their unwitting guinea pigs' breasts "“ but none of it worked. During World War II, Japanese prostitutes reportedly injected themselves with silicone to better attract the patronage of American GIs, a technique that became so popular that silicone became a precious commodity. Topless dancers in the U.S. also got hip to silicone shots, but it wasn't long before complications like discoloration and infection put a damper on the silicone fever.

saline-implants.jpgThen, in 1961, everything changed. That's when a little corporation called Dow Corning collaborated with two Houston cosmetic surgeons to create the first silicone breast prosthetic, made from a rubber sac filled with viscous silicone gel. The basic design remained unchanged for 30 years, though it was modified slightly for safety reasons in 1982. Ten years later, after nearly 100,000 women had the modified version implanted, the FDA announced that the polyurethane in the implants could break down into the body and form a carcinogen. As a result, many U.S. surgeons turned to the safer, but less natural feeling, saline implants (pictured) designed in France back in the 1960s.

This piece was written by Ransom Riggs and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.

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January 10, 2009 - 10:30am
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