Before the days of saline and silicone, doctors would try inserting pretty much anything. As this horrifying history of breast implants shows, that didn’t always work out.
Experts estimate that breast enlargement is currently the second-most popular cosmetic surgery operation around the world, with approximately four percent of women in America endowed with breast implants. There are a couple of caveats in that figure, but when you can get a “temporary” breast enhancement injection that lasts for 24 hours, it really makes one wonder just how we got to this point. Who was the first person to suggest surgically altering the female breast? For that matter, who volunteered first, and why?
Tumors, wool, and glass balls: the early days of the breast implant
Acclaimed surgeon Vincenz Czerny was behind the first documented breast augmentation surgery, which took place in Germany in 1895. Czerny operated on a 41-year-old singer who had just had a tumor removed from her left breast. The patient was concerned with her breasts’ lopsided appearance, so Czerny concluded that he could find a way to help her. He found another apple-sized fatty tumor in the lumbar region of her back, removed it, and re-inserted the tumor into her breast to fill the unwanted space. Crazy as it seems to replace a tumor with another tumor, Czerny’s use of actual body tissue was actually quite sophisticated—at least in comparison to those who tried to imitate his landmark work.
With no apparent idea of where to start (and no concern whatsoever for the patient’s comfort), the first half of the 20th century saw Czerny-mimicking doctors injecting or inserting everything from paraffin, glass balls, and ivory to wool, sponges, and ox cartilage into women’s breasts. Side effects from these botched surgeries were horrific, and ranged from infections and severe scarring to skin necrosis, pulmonary embolisms, granulomas, liver problems, comas, and even the ultimate side effect: death.
Bombshells and breast implants
Behind all of this painful experimentation was desire. In the 1940s and 50s, the buxom bombshell was the ultimate symbol of sex and beauty: many woman wanted to resemble icons like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, and stuffed bras didn’t always cut it. “The busty look of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell…really emphasized this curvy silhouette,” beauty historian Teresa Riordan told the BBC. “[It] got women thinking about augmenting their breasts.”
At this time, medical science had yet to perfect the breast augmentation process, but that didn’t stop doctors from performing the operations. Some surgeons tried inserting different kinds of sponge implants into women’s breasts, but these dried up and hardened in a matter of weeks, causing inflammation, more infections, and a cancer scare. During the WWII years, Japanese women even injected non-medical grade silicone into their chests in order to secure the patronage of the American servicemen stationed there, as they assumed American soldiers were only attracted to large-breasted women. This would often result in the horrendous “silicone rot,” in which gangrene would set into the breast injection area.