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Published Sunday, January 25, 2015

Odd Mods: Breast Implants

Vincenz Czerny, pioneer in the treatment of breast cancer.

Warning: Some graphic breast cancer stuff below.

A body modification expert once told me that the reason doctors don’t perform modifications very often is because they will not alter the body from its ‘normal’ state for aesthetic reasons. Then we both laughed and laughed, because come on. Come on. And unsurprisingly, in recent years some plastic surgeons have apparently been dipping their toes in the modification waters. I blame Peter Jackson, he’s been really pushing elves on us.

Which brings us to one of my favorite (semi) modern body mods: Breast implants. And no, they’re not my favorite for the reasons you think.

Many people probably know that breast implants were ‘invented’ in 1961 by Thomas Cronin and Frank Gerow (And the Dow Corning Corporation) resulting in an explosion of large breastedness that continues to this day. But what Cronin and Gerow actually put together was a prosthesis filled with silicone. A self-contained silicone bubble that’s pretty recognizable if you’ve seen those plastic surgery TV shows. For a while saline took over (Created in 1964) as king of implants due to the risks of silicone leakage, but since the mid-1990s when extra durable silicone implants were developed, both types are widely used depending on which best fits the patient's situation.

Fun fact: Both Bodyartforms founders had subdermal implants. Neither were breasts. They have since been removed.

But 1961 was not the beginning of breast implantation. And finding the go-to material (And getting it into a usable format) required a lot of work and resulted in catastrophic failures and injuries.


How early are you imagining this train started rolling? 1950? 1930? Try 1895.

Enter Vincenz Czerny, who harvested tissue from a tumor made of body fat and used that to fill the space left over from removing a cancerous tumor from a woman’s breast. Czerny was one of the most widely respected cancer doctors of his time and thought of breast augmentation as a way to restore symmetry after a surgery. But it wasn’t long after Czerny’s work that some folks thought it might be a good idea to try it just for aesthetic reasons.

One of the first materials to be widely tested for this (And by tested I mean totally injected right into people) was camphorated oil, camphor suspended in liquid paraffin. You might have heard of paraffin wax before, but I’ll save you the Google and just let you know it’s made from petroleum. It comes in both solid and liquid forms and both were injected into men and women for various reasons, most often to flesh out an area where something was removed.

Almost immediately after this started, people started coming down with a bad case of paraffinoma, growths of inflammation as the body rejected the paraffin. And by almost immediately, I mean within weeks.

“Fifteen days thereafter there was an intermittent pain on the right side, soon followed by color changes in the skin which became violet in spots. About a month after this, the breast was movable and presented on its entire periphery shining venous colored skin resembling that of varicose legs. The breast was neither hot, hard nor painful. There were softened patches in the center of the hardened carapace formed by the injection. There was no axillary glandular enlargement. The softened part on incision gave vent to liquefied petrolatum and serosities containing fat globules. Pressure of the neigh boring parts gave vent to pasty paraffin.” – Skin and Venereal Diseases, 1904


That woman’s breasts literally leaked paraffin after a while. This being the early 1900s, however, testing continued with paraffin that melted at a higher temperature. Problems included burns and sloughing of skin from injecting something 136 degrees into the inside parts of a person. And this wasn’t just done on breasts. It was done on noses too.


And yes, everyone got paraffinomas. I found tons of stories about these injections and they’re all terrible. It kind of makes you wonder why so many people kept trying it when it really didn’t seem to work.

Some other materials included things like whale ivory, which sounds insane but ivory was actually a big choice for bone replacement at the time, so taking small bits and putting them into a breast to help with “flaccidity” didn’t seem, you know, insane. And from what I can gather, ivory actually worked out okay when used as bone pegs to repair fractures. It was quickly supplanted by plates made of metal.

The horrifying sounding Ivalon – polyvinyl alcohol – was one of the first modern miracle materials to be cut to size and implanted. Turns out that was a bad idea too, and surgeons spent decades trying to find everyone who had these done to take them out.

Silicone was arrived at relatively late in the game and still had its hiccups. The first silicone used was liquid and injected directly into the breasts by people who apparently hadn’t heard about the paraffin issues above. But this is the 1950s, so they definitely didn’t inject liquid silicone into a bunch of people without making sure it wouldn’t kill them.


Just kidding. They did 50,000 before stopping. Painful bumps, growths, tumors, and embolisms resulted and some people even died.

Side note: Liquid silicone is horrible, don’t ever get it injected into you. Yes, there are people who still do this.

I’m not the only one who made this point either, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery had this to say: “Surely this terrifying history should have taught surgeons to be wary of injectable materials for breast augmentation. However…”

However indeed, guys.


This long, and sometimes horrifying, journey is one of the reasons I find breast implants so fascinating. It’s impossible to fully appreciate the subdermal implants of today without seeing the whole journey to get there. As a final note, I did want to point out some of the reasons that doctors don’t tend to consider breast implants purely aesthetic. Plastic surgery and “societal normalization” is a pretty big deal, even if it’s not something that we all agree with.

Studies performed before and after breast augmentation surgery have indicated a notable rise in self-esteem, increase in overall happiness and also sexual satisfaction. Some might scoff at this, but one Danish study showed that women who had breast augmentation for ‘purely aesthetic’ reasons had a threefold suicide rate and nearly double the rate of psychiatric care as the general population. Now, of course, not everyone who gets implants has low self-esteem, and not everyone needs psychiatric care, but it is something that plastic surgeons evaluate when looking at new patients.

But if breast augmentation can help someone’s overall mental health, can it be considered “purely aesthetic”?