removing parts of the body

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removing parts of the body Removing surplus hair, nails, and skin is a convenience and part of normal life. Almost everywhere in the world removing other parts, or allowing a surgeon to remove them, is more unusual. Nevertheless, it has a long history.

‘[I]t is no small presumption to Dismember the Image of God’ wrote the military surgeon John Woodall in 1639, and he advised his colleagues to say their prayers before they did it. But this attitude did not last. From the late eighteenth century onwards there was a huge increase in surgical knowledge and practice, along with a much less holistic attitude to the parts of the body. It was also a period when many lost their faith in God and with it the idea that the human body was perfectly designed. Both surgeons and their patients developed an interest in removing parts of the body in order to improve human life and strive for bodily perfection. Some directed research towards discovering what parts the body could do without and how much of it could be removed without killing the patient. The arrival of safer surgery, with antisepsis and anaesthesia, gave impetus to such procedures, particularly from the 1880s onwards.

Removing healthy parts of the body was not a new idea. For thousands of years young boys had been castrated to turn them into eunuchs, to avoid them becoming sexual rivals of their masters or so that their voices would not break. Many more young boys lost their foreskins for religious reasons. Since ancient times surgeons had removed diseased parts but now, in the pursuit of health and bodily perfection, this practice was extended to healthy tissues and to tissues that appeared to be healthy but which might, in accordance with new medical theories, be a concealed source of disease or ill-health. Healthy teeth were removed in huge numbers in case they were a source of hidden infection. Tonsils and the foreskins of newborn boys were excised in their millions, often for social as much as prophylactic reasons (though ‘medical’ reasons were often constructed as rationalization). Wedges were taken from noses or behind ears to improve their shape or profile. ‘Spare tyres’ of fat were cut from abdomens. The uvula was removed for being too long, the frenum (the fold of membrane under the tongue) was divided to improve articulation, and part of the tongue was excised with the same intent. The thymus was removed (or irradiated to put it out of action) in babies, with the intention of guarding against sudden death. Colons were shortened to relieve constipation. Lengths of bone were even removed to shorten stature.

The idea of removing healthy parts of the body for the sake of improved appearance or health was supported by the evolutionary concept of ‘vestigial organs’ that were no longer required and, so it was argued, might cause trouble. Appendix, colon, tonsils, prostate, and coccyx were all at some time believed to come into this category. Darwin thought that these organs ‘had to be those that once had been of some use but which now were degenerating because they served no purpose and were a waste of energy for the organism to produce.’ The concept of declining organs was supported by nineteenth-century ideas of degeneration.

Some people still develop desires to have normal parts of their bodies or their children's bodies removed. Even before the days of anaesthetics there were women who begged surgeons to remove their ovaries. The availability of anaesthesia made all forms of removal much easier. Hysterectomy became popular even where the indications for doing it were doubtful. Transsexuals began to seek removal of their sexual organs. Parental pressure was the main reason that the practice of tonsillectomy on children without disease persisted. Infants are usually circumcized because their parents wish it. ‘Nose jobs’, face lifts, breast reductions, and other cosmetic operations are done because the patients want to have them done, or are persuaded by others that their lives will be transformed.

During the twentieth century we became even more obsessed with body image and appearance. Fay Weldon's novel, The She-Devil, is about a woman who had virtually her whole body removed and reconstructed. It is an appropriate satire on our times.

Ann Dally

See also amputation; appendix; castration; circumcision; cosmetic surgery; surgery.