Dr. Andrew Elkwood on the History of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Part I: Early History

May 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Some of the earliest documented uses of reconstructive surgery come from India during the 6th century B.C.E., when the surgeon Sushruta performed a number of surgical techniques related to plastic and cataract surgery. Another instrumental Indian surgeon named Charak also made significant contributions to both plastic surgery and medicine as a whole during this time.

In ancient Greece and Rome, a number of physicians advanced the art and science of plastic and reconstructive surgery. Aulus Cornelius Celsus, a well-known Roman medical writer, authored a called De Medicina, which outlined several reconstructive surgical techniques for lips, noses, and ears. Celsus also provided a number of detailed anatomical descriptions of the skeletal system and genitalia that laid a foundation for the modern practice of facial and reconstructive surgery. During the early Byzantine period, a medical writer and physician named Oribasius published a comprehensive encyclopedia that included several chapters devoted entirely to surgical methods of repairing facial defects.

During the Middle Ages, the scientific advances made under the Roman Empire came to a relatively abrupt halt. Religion and spiritualism also played a part in the slowing down of the field, with Pope Innocent III even going so far as to declare surgery of all kinds against the teachings of the Church. Patients undergoing surgery also placed themselves at significant risk of infection, given the lack of knowledge about proper hygiene and cleanliness. However, in the Arabic world, science and medicine flourished, and the writings of Sushruta and Charak, the Sushruta Samhita and Charak Samhita, respectively, were eventually translated into Arabic around 750 C.E. These translations later made their way into Europe.

With the advent of the Renaissance, European surgeons began to develop safer and more effective surgical techniques, which once again piqued interest in plastic and reconstructive surgery. One of the most definitive texts from this period, “Imperial Surgery” by Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu, includes a wealth of information on the practice of maxillofacial surgery and treating gynecomastia. At the same time that Sabuncuoglu was writing, a physician named Heinrich von Pfolspeundt described a technique by which a surgeon could craft a new nose with skin taken from other parts of the body.

About the author: Dr. Andrew Elkwood is a New Jersey-based plastic and reconstructive surgeon with 15 years of experience. Dr. Elkwood currently serves as a Partner at The Plastic Surgery Center and Medical Director of the Institute for Advanced Reconstruction. Dr. Elkwood has been acknowledged as a leading plastic surgeon by the Consumer Guide to Top Doctors.


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