BBC World Service
By Claire Bowes & Cordelia Hebbleth waite
It is 50 years since the first breast enlargement using silicone implants. Today it 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 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 her self-confidence – and she enjoyed the extra attention – she had never planned to have a breast augmentation.
Timmie Jean before and just after her op, and today
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 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.
In search of a bigger bust
Injected: Paraffin was tried in the 1890s, but quickly dropped because it leaked to other parts of the body
Transplanted: In the 1920s and 1930s 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 1950s
Non-surgical solutions: Vacuum pumps, suction devices, a multitude of lotions and potions, and padded or inflatable bras
Source: Inventing Beauty by Teresa Riordan
“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 principal 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 Gerow and 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 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, 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,” he says.
“I was not wise enough to realize the magnitude of it.”
The significance began to hit home when 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 Biggs.
The time seemed right. 1950s 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.