The first breast augmentation operation using silicone implants took place 50 years ago. Now the procedure rates as the second-most popular form of cosmetic surgery worldwide, undergone by 1.5 million women in 2010.
It was spring 1962 when Timmie Jean Lindsey, a mother-of-six lay down on the operating table at Jefferson Davis hospital in Houston, Texas.
Over the next two hours, she went from a B to a C cup, in an operation that made history.
“I thought they came out just perfect… They felt soft and just like real breasts,” says Timmie Jean Lindsey now aged 80.
“I don’t think I got the full results of them until I went out in public and men on the street would whistle at me.”
Though the operation boosted Timmie Jean Lindsey’s self-confidence – and she enjoyed the extra attention – she had never planned to have a breast enlargement.
Timmie Jean Lindsey had been to hospital to get a tattoo removed from her breasts, and it was then that doctors asked if she would consider volunteering for this first-of-its-kind operation.
“I was more concerned about getting my ears pinned back… My ears stood out like Dumbo! And they said <<Oh we’ll do that too>>.” So a deal was struck.”
The surgeons were two ambitious pioneers, Frank Gerow and Thomas Cronin.
It was Frank Gerow who had first come up with the plan for a new kind of breast implant.
“Frank Gerow squeezed a plastic blood bag and remarked how much it felt like a woman’s breast,” says Teresa Riordan, author of Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations that have Made Us Beautiful.
“And he had this <<Aha!>> moment, where he first conceived of the silicone breast implant.”
The first guinea pig for the silicone implant was a dog named Esmeralda. The basic principle behind the prototype was simple.
“A rocket achieves lift off with lift and thrust – same thing in breast augmentation,” says Thomas Biggs, who was working with frank Gerow and Thomas Cronin in 1962 as a junior resident in plastic surgery.
“I was in charge of the dog. The implant was inserted under the skin and left for a couple of weeks, until she chewed at her stitches and it had to be removed.”
The operation was deemed a success and Frank Gerow declared that the implants were “as harmless as water”. Soon after, the medical team began looking for women to try out the implants.
Timmie Jean Lindsey has only a hazy recollection of her operation day.
“As I came back from surgery there was just a lot of weight on my chest – like something heavy had been sitting there.”
“That was about it – after maybe three or four days the pain part of it had let up.”
The doctors were pleased with their work. But, at the time, Thomas Biggs had no idea quite what they had on their hands.
“Sure it was a little bit exciting, but if I’d had a mirror to the future I’d have been dumbstruck,” Thomas Biggs says.
“I was not wise enough to realize the magnitude of it.”
The significance began to hit home when Thomas Cronin presented the work at the International Society of Plastic Surgeons in Washington DC in 1963.
“The plastic surgery world was absolutely set on fire with enthusiasm,” says Thomas Biggs.
The time seemed right. 1950’s America had seen a whole swathe of cultural influences come together around the ideal of a larger breast.
It was the decade in which Playboy magazine and Barbie launched, and film stars played a big role too.
Injected: Paraffin was tried in the 1890’s, but quickly dropped because it leaked to other parts of the body.
Transplanted: In the 1920’s and 1930’s doctors tried moving fat from other parts of the body to the breast.
Inserted: Polyurethane, cartilage, sponges, wood and even glass balls, were all tried in the 1950’s.
Non-surgical solutions: Vacuum pumps, suction devices, a multitude of lotions and potions, and padded or inflatable bras.
Source: Inventing Beauty by Teresa Riordan