From Paraffin To Glass Balls To Silicone: The Disturbing History Of Breast Implants

Breast augmentation has taken many strange forms over the years, from sex-trafficked Japanese women to literal dogs, to materials like carved ivory and glass balls. But, just when medical professionals thought they had perfected the procedure, it turns out even the most novel, innovative practices can cause serious, and sometimes fatal, harm.

By Andrea Mew6 min read
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Shutterstock/Ekateryna Zubal

Big boobs carry a lot of weight, both literally and metaphorically. A more well-endowed woman might appear powerful because of her perceived sexual value, but she might feel as though people can’t take her seriously in the workplace. Similarly, a more flat-chested woman might feel insufficient in her femininity and look to plastic surgeons to fix her perceived issue.

By 2026, the global breast implant market is expected to grow to $2.9 billion as women elect to go under the knife and have conservatively sized to extra voluptuous implants placed on their chests. Though we now commonly see silicone implants (filled with silicone gel), form-stable implants, saline implants, or structured saline implants, these historically aren’t the only materials to have been used to increase a woman’s breast size. Silicone breast implants have a rough and tumble history and continue to be a cause of genuine controversy to date. Let’s take a look at how we arrived at this multi-billion dollar market from the very beginning.

Early Augmentations Were Nothing Less Than Unorthodox

Austrian doctor Robert Gersuny paved the way for breast augmentation and reconstruction back in 1890 by injecting liquid paraffin directly into women’s chests, and while the results were initially promising, the paraffin eventually would form unnatural, hard lumps in their breasts, and some of the women who Dr. Gersuny injected contracted infections or suffered tissue necrosis or life-threatening conditions like blood clots in their brain or lungs.

This would mark the first of many breast augmentation-related injuries that lead us to where we are today, but all that came in between isn’t any less disturbing. Once the 1920s rolled around, paraffin was passé, and doctors instead used a fat transplant method from excess buttock or abdominal fat. This was no doubt inspired by an 1895 surgical success where a fatty tumor from one patient’s back was transplanted into the chest of a mastectomy patient. Sure, it was a bit safer than a fully foreign substance, but oftentimes the breasts were asymmetrical as the women’s bodies would end up reabsorbing some of the transferred fatty tissue.

What wouldn’t be absorbed so easily? Why, glass balls, of course! In the 1930s, surgeons made new strides with the first ever implant-based boob job when a glass ball was placed in a woman’s chest. This paved the way for a slew of strange materials, such as wood chips, ox cartilage, peanut oil, and even carved ivory. But what was perhaps the most heinous of all practices in the quest to perfect the breast augmentation process was how sex-trafficked Japanese women were used as human guinea pigs.

Sex-Trafficked Japanese Women Were Used As Human Guinea Pigs

Allegedly, while America was occupying Japan post-World War II, a large quantity of industrial silicone was stolen from the Yokohama harbor shipping docks. American servicemen supposedly preferred more well-endowed women than what Japan had to offer them, so Japanese cosmetologists experimented with a few different substances to augment Japanese prostitutes’ breasts. The silicone stolen from Yokohama was used as direct injections into the breasts and either led to “silicone rot” or gangrene, and in more serious cases, it resulted in death.

Silicone wasn’t the only substance being tested out illegally and by unlicensed practitioners on Japanese prostitutes, however. In her book Silicone Survivors: Women’s Experiences with Breast Implants, Rutgers University postdoctoral fellow Susan M. Zimmerman explained that cosmetologists tried out goat milk, paraffin, and petroleum jelly mixtures as well. To ensure that silicone or other liquids didn’t migrate upon injection (a problem we now see often with hyaluronic acid-based fillers, such as the lip filler migration issue), cosmetologists added cottonseed oil, olive oil, or peanut oil to their injectables. But, though this caught the injectable at its site, it also caused immediate scarring.

One doctor, Dr. Sakurai, revolutionized Japanese silicone injections and then brought his practice to the States. After arriving in California, infamous home of the hustle and bustle Hollywood starlets, Dr. Sakurai opened a breast injection practice and coined the “Sakurai formula.” Some believe this normalized silicone breast injections among plastic surgeons, and by 1965 there were apparently 75 Los Angeles-based practitioners who could augment women’s chests using this method. Apparently, Dr. Sakurai himself injected as many as 72,648 women, though this wasn’t exclusive to their breasts.

Injections grew in popularity despite the wide range of associated, critical complications. Women felt high levels of pain. Their skin became discolored. They developed edema, ulcers, necrosis, and calcification. They grew cysts. Their breasts became disfigured (and in some cases, lost entirely), and the fluid migrated, causing liver dysfunction, adult respiratory distress syndrome, blood clots, and worst of all – coma and death.

Still, Hollywood and even Las Vegas became hotbeds for silicone breast injections. Before the practice became a felony in Las Vegas in 1976, it has been estimated that as many as 40,000 women got this experimental procedure. Many women – especially entertainment industry hopefuls – desired bodies like their favorite pin-up role models Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield. 

Since the practice was banned here in the States, some women sought out augmentations in Mexico. One burlesque star, Kitten Natividad, was asked by the owners of the club she worked at to get breast injections. After receiving 30 injections, her breasts turned purple (which couldn’t have been good for business), so she got her silicone injections removed and instead opted for silicone breast implants, ending up with a 48DDD cup size.

Injections Are Out, Implants Are In – for Better or for Worse

Silicone breast implants have come with their own slew of issues from the very start. The first silicone implant was actually inserted into a dog named Esmeralda by American doctors Frank Gerow and Thomas Cronin back in the early 1960s. Once a few weeks passed, the doctors declared silicone implants were “harmless,” and a Texas woman named Timmie Jean Lindsey became the first patient to receive the implants. She later shared her “years of misery” with the Daily Mail, detailing how she was “hurting everywhere,” suffering from rashes, chronic fatigue, rheumatic fever, liver problems, and more.

The implants weren’t considered medical devices, so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didn’t need to approve their usage. Initially, silicone implants were quite firm, so in their second generation, the manufacturers used thinner shells and a lower-cohesion silicone inside. Naturally, that meant that the implants were less durable and subject to rupturing. Gel could leak, and scar tissue could harden around the implant site. To address complications, one inventor named William Pangman, who had been working at the manufacturing company Mentor, developed the foam-coated implant in 1972. These implants would later be the subject of class action lawsuits in the 1990s.

After a few product generations, the now-infamous textured breast implant was introduced to the public in the 1980s and seemed promising to consumers: the shape looked more natural, the texture couldn’t rotate as easily, and rupture rates decreased. However, women continued to experience a slew of adverse effects and raised class action lawsuits arguing that implant rupture was still too common and that the silicone itself caused them to develop immune system diseases like arthritis and lupus. $4 billion was paid out to 450,000 women who alleged they became sick as a result of their silicone breast implants.

Now, lawsuits are being raised against manufacturer Allegan over their Biocell textured breast implants, which plaintiffs say (and the FDA backs up) cause anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a rare lymphatic cancer. Several brands have been recalled, but the lawsuit has not yet been settled and no trials have taken place. Thousands of women likely still have these implants which, even without ruptures, can seep 40+ toxic chemicals and heavy metals into their bodies.

Breast Implant Illness Is Real, Even If Doctors Aren’t Talking About It Yet

As of 2022, overall patient satisfaction in America following breast augmentation is at 97%, higher than tummy tucks, blepharoplasty, rhinoplasty, and liposuction. Clearly, many women feel there are major pros to getting a boob job. Implants themselves can last a very long time, and if they opt for saline implants, then they’ll likely be fronting a much smaller bill.

Implants can provide women with certain psychosocial benefits and even improve their quality of life – if they don’t suffer from any adverse effects, of course – such as feeling more confident about their body image. Though you can’t shove the potential, multifaceted complications under the rug, it is worth noting that some women who get breast implants are doing so after it was a medical necessity for them to get a double mastectomy as breast cancer treatment, for example. The curves they may have had were lost to their illness, and breast implants serve as a way for them to regain bodily confidence.

In their 2020 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report, the American Society for Plastic Surgeons reported that breast augmentation once again made it within the top five cosmetic surgical procedures, a ranking that has been maintained since 2006. Of those augmentations, 84% of patients sought out silicone implants and 16% instead went with saline implants.

Given the humble boob job has maintained significant levels of popularity, the FDA recently had to announce a series of new regulatory requirements to address leak rates and better prime augmentation candidates with potential risk checklists prior to going under the knife. They asserted that the symptomatic women are within the minority of breast implant patients; however, many women have been speaking out online about how their voices aren’t being heard on the matter.

As we know, adverse event reporting systems aren’t inclusive of the experience of all patients. Less than 0.3% of all adverse events to drugs and somewhere between 1% and 13% of serious events are reported to the FDA. In the case of vaccines, fewer than 1% of adverse events are reported. Some complications go underreported because of hurdles trying to file the reports in the first place, and in other cases, some medical professionals certainly aren’t quick to believe patients when they say they’re experiencing breast implant illness syndrome, or BII.

For years, some medical professionals have dismissed patients struggling with BII, but now major studies have suggested that BII is indeed a “true clinical entity” with “extensive morbidity.” Still, there is no standard of care for BII, which leads influencers like Amanda Porta (The Holistic Beauty Coach) or Nicole Daruda (Healing Breast Implant Illness) to spread awareness through social media of the very real dangers that silicone breast implants pose for a woman’s health.

Closing Thoughts

Though BII is a relatively understudied illness, history has shown us that time and time again, breast augmentations are the cause of many poor health outcomes. From the initial, experimental procedures that disfigured and maimed sex-trafficked Japanese women to the recalled, textured silicone implants which many women across the world still have in their bodies to this date, breast augmentation has never come without controversy.

It may seem tempting, upon constant comparison both online and in real life, to want to undergo surgical procedures and augment your beauty traits, but some may indeed be riskier than practitioners make them out to be. Trends truly come and go, and it’s really worth weighing whether or not you’ll still want the look you’re dying to achieve in a few years or if, perhaps, you’ll have moved on. 

Body types shouldn’t be trends, but this is nothing new – curves have ebbed and flowed in their popularity throughout much of modern times. While I’m in no way disavowing the power of all procedures outright and firmly believe that some can be positively life changing, it may be more productive to your mental psyche and overall physical health to accept certain elements of your natural body, nourish it, and surround yourself with people who love you for who you are – not who you could be through plastic surgery.

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