Thursday, October 23, 2014

Who put the "plastic" in plastic surgery?

"Plastic Surgery" is the hot topic of the day (especially as it relates to Renee Zellweger) and so the question arises as to what plastic is used in plastic surgery.

The word "plastic" is an old word that is used in many diverse settings. In materials science, there is plastic deformation. You also have the macromolecules that are the subject of most of the posts on this blog and you have the surgery. It may be surprising, but these uses are all based on the same meaning that the word "plastic" originally meant. "Plastic" comes from the Greek plastikos, meaning moldable.

The use of the word in the area of material science is the oldest application of the word and it refers to an irreversible deformation of a material. All materials can be stretched or bent to some degree so that when the applied force is removed, the material bounces back to its original shape. This is referred to as elastic deformation. But when too much force is applied, the material is permanently deformed - it has undergone plastic deformation. Whether it is a blacksmith pounding out iron, the steel for a car door being stamped or the drunk guy squishing his aluminum beer cans, its all plastic deformation. The material is being molded into a new shape.

With the development of polymers in the 20th century, macromolecules quickly became associated with the term plastic because they are quite moldable. Compared to metals which usually required large amounts of heat and force to mold them, polymers required comparatively little heat and force. The association is so strong that the word "plastic" to most people refers to polymers and little else.

Hence the misunderstanding of the term plastic surgery. The term was originally based on the idea of molding parts of the body through any of a number of techniques, most of which do not involve polymers. But because the word plastic has become equivalent to polymeric materials, you can have Joan Rivers joking about having her dead body donated to Tupperware. In fact, the etymology site noted above states that the term plastic surgery was first used in 1839, well before polymeric materials were described as plastic.

So who put the plastic in plastic surgery? We all did. But keep in mind what the word plastic really refers to: moldability.



Previous Years

October 23, 2013 - Dog and Pony Show

October 23, 2009 - Polymeric Auto Glass

October 23, 2006 - Polymers in the Proceedings

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