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					   The History of Perfection:
From Alchemy to Cosmetic Surgery

       Melissa Portella - December 14, 2004
    The search for perfection is a theme in human
    history; the desire for it is so great that extreme
        measures are taken to realize this goal

•People all over the world are obsessed with it

•Those suffering from the illness are called “Perfectionists”

•A science was developed whose goal was to achieve perfection - Alchemy
Condorcet – The Father of Perfectionism
                          • 1794 – The Future Progress of the
                            Human Mind

                          • An inspirational but idealistic view
                            of the world, particularly, human

                          • This progress would eventually
                            lead humanity toward an indefinite

                          • “Nature has set no term to the
                            perfection of human faculties…the
                            perfectibility of man is truly
                            indefinite…and the progress of
                            this perfectibility…has no other
                            limit than the duration of the     globe…”(p.1).
               The Definition of Progress
“Is the human race to better itself, either by discoveries in the science and the arts,
and so in the means to individual welfare and general prosperity; or by progress in
the principles of conduct or practical morality; or by a true perfection of the
intellectual, moral, or physical faculties of man, an improvement which may result
from a perfection either of the instruments used to heighten the intensity of these
faculties and to direct their use or of the natural constitution of man” ~ Condorcet

                    was it new discoveries in

                  was it becoming financially

                was it upholding the principles of
                     conduct and morality?

    Or was it achieving “true perfection of the intellectual, moral, or
                      physical faculties of man…”
    Condorcet’s perspective
This statement suggests the possibility that perfection of a
  man‟s mind, body, and soul is achieved through the
  advancement of new technology.

Such advancements and progress would result in the
  perfection of the human race.

Advancements in the science of alchemy and cosmetic
  surgery correspond with Condorcet‟s opinion

Alchemy was more than just the art of turning metals into
  gold – its initial goal was to realize the eternal perfection
  of objects (De Rola 1973, p.7)
             Alchemy and Medicine:
                      Perfective Arts
• Galen, the infamous Greek
  medical doctor and philosopher,
  shared Condorcet‟s belief in his
  philosophy of medicine. His
  belief was in the idea that a
  physician‟s duty is to revert the
  human body to a natural state of
  health – a state of perfection

• Medicine‟s goal = acquisition of a
  healthy physical state

• Alchemy‟s goal = creation of a
  physical object

          (Newman, 2004)
Defined in Webster‟s dictionary as the medieval
 chemical philosophy aiming to transmute base
 metals into gold, discover the panacea, and
 prepare the elixir of longevity

Alchemy was a science riding on the beliefs of
  men like Condorcet and Galen who wanted to
  bring nature to perfection, specifically by
  turning base metals into gold
                      why gold?
•   All metals were made of sulphur and mercury in varying proportions

•   Gold was the superior metal – composed of large amounts of mercury
    and little amounts of sulphur (Seligmann 1948).

•   Gold was chosen because of its “incorruptible nature and its remarkable
    physical characteristics” (De Rola1978)

•   To alchemists, this element served as an analogy to the ultimate
    perfection which they themselves sought after, and hoped to achieve this
    by helping „base‟ metals to reach the blessed state of gold.

•   Therefore, to alchemist, gold was the most perfect and imperishable
    substance. And since nature, as explained by Galen, consistently leans
    towards perfection, then producing gold was a step closer to this goal.
    (Seligmann 1948).
     The Philosopher’s Stone
• 12th century alchemists realized that putting the
  theory of turning any metal into gold successfully
  would require a special agent.
• This agent was special because it was “blessed”
  by the fifth ethereal element. It‟s been called
  many names including: the philosopher‟s stone,
  the philosophic powder, the great elixir, and the
• When this substance touched imperfect liquid
  metals, they were automatically transformed into
Making the Philosopher’s Stone
• Good timing
• Right tools
• Proper procedures
• Prima Materia (essence of
   all substances)

Like true scientists, alchemists
   followed the scientific
   method in order to replicate
   their work and for others to
   replicate their work.
    3 degrees of Perfection
Stage 1.
• Secret fire, Ignis Innaturalis, used
   to purify the prima materia
• Fire distilled and solidified prima
   materia into a pure, mercurial
• Purified substance is enclosed in a
   sealed vessel called a Philosophic
   Egg, which is then placed in an
   alchemists‟ furnace – the athanor.
• This furnace is specially designed
   to maintain a constant temperature
   for an extended period of time
• Two substances within:
      1- Solar, hot, male sulphur
      2- Lunar, cold, female mercury
• Substances would mix, then slowly
   decay into a black liquid called
     3 degrees of Perfection
Stage 2.
• A sparkling sheen appears on the
   surface of the nigredo.
• This “metallic, volatile humidity” is
   recognized as the Mercury of the
   Wise – a substance that “flies
   through the alchemical air, within
   the microcosm of the Philosophical
   Egg, „in the belly of the wind‟,
   receiving the celestial and
   purifying influences above
• After purification, it returns to earth
   in a sublimated, white form called
• Stage 2 is the KEY step in
   incorporating the ethereal fifth
   element, which was necessary to
   give the Philosopher‟s stone the
   generative power to transmute
   base metals into gold
                      3 degrees of Perfection

Stage 3
• “The Royal Wedding”
• After the second step, the
   white albedo becomes an
   incombustible substance.
• Red sulphur, the “King”, is
   added to the white mercury,
   “Queen”, in the Fire of Love
   (the secret fire) to form a
   perfect mixture that forms the
   Philosopher‟s Stone
            Historians of Alchemy
•   Chinese - 150 and 100 B.C - concentrated on achieving rejuvenation
    and eternal life. Gold was an immortal element that when absorbed by
    the body, could render a man immortal
         “Like produces like, is the old axiom of sympathetic magic: the
         most perfect and imperishable metal will produce immortality
         and perfection”

•   Egyptians - 2900 B.C – when gold was discovered, a secret refining
    process was developed only known by the King‟s priests
•   2 papyri (from 4th century) – contain “recipes” for imitation natural
    products like gold
•   Greedy Kings encouraged experimentation with alchemy
•   King Tut was buried with an astonishing cache of jewelry, including
    various gold artifacts, most likely produced by Egyptian workers

•   Egypt – 300 A.D – Zosimus of Panopolis publicly shared his knowledge
    of alchemy, designed an apparatus for conducting experiments
           Is alchemy possible?
•   Alchemists could never really make gold because it only exists as a
    natural element, rather than a compound made up of varying elements

•   In the late 1960‟s, physicist Judith Temperley successfully transmuted
    mercury into gold by bombarding the metal with high-energy neutrons in
    order to change the atomic number of mercury from 80 to atomic number
    79, gold
    *Note the advancement of technology – which leads towards human

•   E.A. Hitchcock (1865) – “Genuine alchemists were not in pursuit of worldly
    wealth and honors. Their real object was the perfection or at least the
    improvement of man”(p.137)

•   Further advancements in technology continued to guide us in the quest for
    human perfection. Today, these alchemists are called cosmetic surgeons.
             Cosmetic Surgery:
            Modern Day Alchemy?

  The progress of human
   perfectibility - Is this
  even an attainable goal
     – or a continued
      obsession with

As the ancient alchemists
     valued gold, so in
  today’s society we value
     youth and beauty.

   “God has imbued man’s soul with a longing for
  perfection. Like nature, man should strive for the
     divine within him” (Seligmann 1948,p.129)
From the 2003 American Society of Plastic Surgeons website

                                              Number of
           Nose Reshaping                       356,554

              Liposuction                       320,022

         Breast Augmentation                    254,140

            Eyelid Surgery                      246,633

                Face-lift                       128,667

From the 2003 American Society of Plastic Surgeons website

                                          Number of
         BotoxTM injection                    2,891,390

           Chemical Peel                       995,238

        Microdermabrasion                      935,984

         Laser hair removal                    623,633

         Collagen injection                    576,255
                        The Problem
         The World Health organization defines health as complete
       physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely the absence
                            of disease or infirmity.

•   The disease for which these patients seek cures – aging, ugliness, poor self-
    esteem has a “cure” – cosmetic surgery

•   In the early years of plastic surgery, doctors were torn in a dichotomous battle
    between societal demands and their role as doctors. If a surgeon was to be
    considered reputable, then placing a patient at risk during a cosmetic procedure
    was a violation of the fundamental tenets of the medical profession, as exampled
    by Hippocrates

•   But now, because the definition of health encompasses the broadness of human
    beings, plastic surgeons have come to see their work as facilitating patients‟ total
    mental and physical health rather than merely removing a distressing flaw.

        “The widespread adoption of the surgical solution reveals a
    frightening vision of Americans as conformists, bent on achieving
         a commodified, advertising-driven standard of perfection”
                           ~Elizabeth Haiken
   World War I:1914-1918


Trench Warfare led to many facial injuries and deformities
 After the War…
• Surgeons returned from World
  War I with experiences that
  served as visions for the
  potential use of similar medical
  procedures in the civilian life.

• The wartime reconstructive
  surgery they had performed gave
  these surgeons experience and         “If soldiers whose faces had been torn
  confidence, but also                 away by bursting shells on the battlefield
  demonstrated their lack of          could come back into an almost normal life
  knowledge. As the years              with new faces created by wizardry of the
  progressed, colleagues began to         new science of plastic surgery, why
  form organized professional           couldn‟t women whose faces had been
  societies that encouraged further    ravaged by nothing more explosive than
  research, practice, and skill in     the hand of the years find again the firm
  the field                                      clear contours of youth?

                                            ~ anonymous World War I surgeon
 American Association of Plastic Surgeons

• In 1921, three years after the war
  ended, the AAPS was formed, largely
  by surgeons who had served in the
  battlefield of World War I
        Mission Statement Today
 The purpose of the American Association of
 Plastic Surgeons is to advance the science and
      art of plastic surgery through surgical
  education, research, scientific presentations,
           and professional interaction.
 Ms. America – 1921
The Start of America’s Beauty Culture

                    Haiken (1997) comments,
                    “not only did this pageant
                    set a national precedent,
                   but it confirmed that beauty
                   was one, if not the primary,
                   criterion by which American
                     women would be judged
                          and would judge
                        themselves” (p.43).
      Ethics of Cosmetic Surgery

• Surgeons struggled to define the difference between reconstructive
  plastic surgery and cosmetic plastic surgery, as they distinguished
  between healing rather than making beautiful.

• At first, surgeons remained faithful to the Hippocratic Oath, reserving
  reconstructive cosmetic surgery for those suffering serious social
  embarrassment due to grotesque deformities

• However, as diets, exercise, cosmetics, and hair color became more
  culturally acceptable steps in the pursuit of beauty, the line between
  surgery and other forms of self-improvement became more difficult
  to identify

                             (Haiken 1997)
        Cosmetic Surgery Today
             “Today…you must be young in thought, feeling and
      appearance…and all you have to do is stretch out your hand to
       receive the magic bounty of glamour that modern science has
               prepared for you” ~ Glamour Magazine (1956)

• Cosmetic surgery is seen as the magic elixir of beauty – the road
  toward the perfection of the human body.

• The statistics for today show that the cosmetic surgery is a multi-
  million dollar industry. Not surprisingly, people are becoming so
  obsessed with plastic surgery that the ASPS reported that 45% of
  cosmetic plastic surgery patients were REPEAT patients in 2003

• Statistics like these support Condorcet‟s belief in unlimited progress
  of perfection. Like Condorcet, society believes nature has set no
  term to the perfection of humans
     Rhinoplasty: The Nose Jobs
•   Nose jobs were among the most common procedures performed on injured
    soldiers since the nose was a protruding feature of the face which made it
    consistently vulnerable to being hurt

•   “Saddle noses” which were characterized by bumps in the upper bone.
    These may have been inherited, as seen in Jewish heritages, or may have
    been caused by trauma, an abscess or infection, or diseases such as
    Scrofula, Lupus, and Syphilis

•   Like the actress Fanny Brice, people with this depressed nose often
    received awkward stares and rude remarks Their traumatizing experiences
    lead them toward plastic surgery as a solution

•   Surgeons would often fix noses by either using the internal prostheses or
    bone, cartilage grafts, or Paraffin injections

•   Today, facial surgeons use many things, from filing down the bone, to
    creating a mattress of sutures, to excising part of the nose cartilage (
 for nose jobs
Modern Day Rhinoplasty:
      Before and After

• Today, a similar substance to Paraffin, called botulinum
  toxin A, trademark name BotoxTM, is used all over the
  world and has sparked a growing billion dollar industry.
• It was in April 2002 that the U.S. Food and Drug
  Administration (FDA) authorized the use of BotoxTM for
  the treatment of facial wrinkles
• This substance, composed of a bacterial toxin, basically
  blocks nerve impulses and temporarily paralyzes the
  muscles that cause wrinkles.
• Inserted as a simple injection, the results are temporary,
  but magnificent, with patients claiming that this magic
  face-lift results in younger, smoother looking skin
• In 2001, BotoxTM accounted for 1.6 million of the 8.5
  million surgical and non-surgical procedures in the world.
Before and After
          Breast Augmentation
• In the early 20th century, women were mostly preoccupied with
  facial beauty, rather than body image.
• In fact, up until the middle of the 20th century, voluptuous movie
  stars like Marilyn Monroe were frequently admired for their beautiful
  faces and bodies.
• However, as the culture grew increasingly preoccupied with beauty
  and perfection, people began to suffer from body image issues too.
• As a result of extensive advertising, many normal sized women
  often find themselves “paralyzed with self-consciousness” because
  their weight, dress size, or bosom size does not measure up to
  society‟s standards

 , “We‟ve become a nation of appearance junkies…pioneers driven to
     think, talk, strategize, and worry about our bodies with the same
       fanatical devotion we applied to putting a man on the moon”
                           ~Judith Rodin (1992)
  History of Breast Augmentation
• FAILED - Around the late 1890s, a Venetian doctor named Robert
  Gersuny pioneered the use of paraffin injections for breast
  augmentation. Caused damaging affects it could have in the human
• FAILED - 1920s and 1930s - Autologous Fat Transplantation – remove
  fatty tissue from the abdomen/buttocks and insert into breast tissue.
  Unsuccessful because the fatty tissue was easily reabsorbed by the
• FAILED – 1943 – Silicone injections – behaved like Paraffin and would
  migrate to the lymph nodes and other areas of the body, as well as the
  form of granulomas, and after time, the development of pendulous
• FAILED – March 1962 – Silicone implants - Silastic mammary
  prosthesis was born, consisting of a silicone-based rubber envelope
  filled with more liquid silicone. And although the protective envelope
  was a vast improvement from direct injections, the implant proved that it
  could leak and still cause major medical trauma
• SUCCESS! – FDA finally banned the use of silicone implants in 1992.
  Today, a safer alternative is offered in with saline-filled implants.
• As for liposuction, numerous techniques have been
  discovered since its introduction to the United States in
• Today, over 241,000 liposuctions are performed yearly
• All doctors will use some degree of anesthesia, some
  doctors have different methods for removing the fat. The
  most common tools used during liposuction are the
  cannula, a long, thin tube, and a vacuuming device
  called an aspirator that is attached to the cannula. Some
  surgeons will insert a fluid injection used to loosen up the
  fat in order to make the procedure easier – this is the
  traditional method. Still, other surgeons will use an
  ultrasound machine to “explode” the walls of the fat cells
  and then suction them out.
 Before and After
           Role of the Media
• In 1924, the New
  York Daily Mirror
  advertised a contest
  awarding the
  contestant plastic
  surgery to improve
  her “homeliness”.
• The “Homely Girl
  Contest” received
  hundreds of entry
  forms from eager
  women waiting to be
  transformed into
“Of all the industrial
achievement of the 20th
century that influence
how we feel about our
bodies, none has had a
more profound effect than
the rise of the mass
media. Through movies,
magazines, and TV, we
see beautiful people as
often as we see our own
family members…”
(Rodin 1992)
                     Reality TV
Makeover shows all have the similar premises – bring
the contestant as close to perfection as possible.

The television, film, and music video industries seem to
be playing important roles in defining and narrowing
conceptions of “ideal” physiques

Three widely popular, major network programs exists
                Fox‟s – The Swan
            ABC‟s – Extreme Makeover
          MTV‟s – I want a Famous Face
Normalizing Cosmetic Surgery
Many of these shows that come out with have
    normalized the procedure of cosmetic
surgery with the very language of „makeover‟
suggesting that undergoing multiple surgical
  procedures is just like wearing cosmetics.
 Cosmetic surgery is placed on a continuum
   with riding exercise bikes, going on low
     calorie diets, and seeing a therapist.
                (Turner 2004).
The Swan
I want a famous face

         Wanting to look like Brad Pitt –
         twins Mike and Matt underwent
         painful cosmetic surgeries to
         look “perfect”
 “The Philosopher‟s stone was supposed to fulfill all wishes and the
Elixir of Life was supposed to guarantee an unlimited prolongation of
  earthy life. He who experiences this transformation has no more
desires, and the prolongation of earthly life has no more importance
       for him who already lives in the deathless” (De Rola 1973)

Today, we continue to seek beauty, to be perfect, to achieve all our
  desires. But once we get everything we want, what‟s there left to
      live for? Maybe this is why we often see many movie stars,
  celebrities, or people who seem to have it all but STILL are not be
 happy. Its because they have finally realized, in a very difficult way,
     that money, fame, and beauty will not buy you a perfect life.

  The only way to make life anywhere near perfect is by living it
 imperfectly everyday. In a world that is constantly trying to look the
 same, treasure the imperfections that make you an individual – this
            will lead to a contentment and a “perfect” life.