Marble head with a missing nose

Contemporary bust of Alexander the Great in his youth

Image: Thinkstock

Humans have been modifying their bodies for millennia. The 5000-year-old, freeze-dried remains of a man found in the Ötztal Alps of Europe was tattooed with lines. People from cultures around the world still mark their bodies with scars, stretch their lips and earlobes, or undergo painful ceremonies to adorn their bodies with symbols and markings.

Although plastic surgery might seem like a modern invention, one of the oldest descriptions of reconstructive surgery is attributed to an Indian physician by the name of Sushruta. Like many writers in the ancient world, it isn’t clear when Sushruta lived, or even if the name described one or many scholars. Yet, manuscripts under his name were being translated into Arabic in the eighth century CE. They included instructions on how to rebuild a nose by cutting a flap of skin from the cheek and twisting it around, ensuring a piece of skin stayed connected for a blood supply.

In times past, disfigurement was typically the result of a rare accident or criminal punishment. In ancient Rome, there are accounts of scars being removed and breast reduction surgery on an obese citizen. Yet, by the Middle Ages, there were few surgical developments.

Modern warfare changed everything. During the 18th century, British surgeons often travelled to India to develop their skills in plastic surgery. The horrific injuries inflicted on soldiers saw many take the chance to have their faces rebuilt by a skilled surgeon.

Anaesthesia and antibiotics have since made surgery far less life threatening. Techniques have improved, decreasing the chances of a failed reconstruction. Plastic surgery is no longer limited to repairing damage, but can be used to change people’s appearance to suit their idea of beauty.

This makes plastic surgery a controversial topic. For some, fixing damage or changing their appearance is worth risking pain, health or even their life. But, drawing a line is far from easy.

Regardless of the controversy behind these choices, people will continue to use medical tools to change their bodies in the future. Ways of growing new tissues from stem cells will help provide surgeons with more skin and blood vessels. New materials and procedures blur the lines between repair and improvement.

One day, electronics under our skin might be powered by our own blood glucose, or the rhythm of our pulse: providing us not only with ways to power medical devices, but even to run personal gadgets!

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