Acharya Sushruta: The Father of Plastic Surgery

Every day we come across information about various celebrities undergoing cosmetology. But have you ever wondered where plastic surgery came from? Believe it or not, the country where surgery gets its roots from is none other than India!


Yes, you read that right.


Started around 600 BC, by an Indian Brahmin- Acharya Sushruta, plastic surgery is a gift from India to the world.

Acharya-Sushruta
Acharya Sushruta

Since the Vedic times, surgeries were conducted in ancient India as a means to cure the injuries faced by warriors and soldiers in that era. However, the methods used for the same were neither well developed nor researched. There was no written record as for many years Vedic knowledge was transmitted orally. The surgeon who completely revolutionized the Ayurveda segment of surgery was Acharya Sushruta, also known as the "Father of Surgery” or “Father of Plastic Surgery".


Acharya-Sushruta

However, unlike the present day's morgue, he had no place to observe and experiment with the human body. Hence he used to go to the riverbank of Ganga, in Varanasi, to collect dead bodies at night. The reason for such a secret operation was the stigma that the Brahmin community attached to such kinds of practices. Least bothered about people’s opinions and the rules of the caste system, Acharya Sushruta went ahead with his mission.

He was the first surgeon to emphasise the need to study human anatomy before practising any surgery on it. He wrote that “anyone wishing to acquire a thorough knowledge of anatomy, must prepare a dead body and carefully observe and examine all its parts”. He taught students dissection but instead of using knives due to cultural taboos, he recommended submerging bodies in water and examining the layers of the body as the tissues decomposed.

One of the major achievements of Sushruta that awarded him with the title of ‘Father of Surgery’ was his writings on rhinoplasty. In the Indian society of that era, the nose was an important status symbol. For many crimes such as adultery, witchcraft, etc., people often received the punishment of losing their noses (remember Lakshmana cutting Surpanakha’s nose in Ramayana?) which not only caused disfigurement but also public embarrassment. Sushruta’s documentation of reconstructing the nose by removing a piece of skin from the cheek became the perfect solution for all the victims of such injuries.


Thus, his contribution to Medical Science, especially in the field of surgery, is immeasurable. His invention of 300 surgical procedures, 120 instruments, and classification of human surgery in 8 categories is even used today. The tools that he had designed 2000 years ago are still the foundation of the methods that are referred to develop modern surgical instruments. His technique of teaching students to practice surgical incisions on vegetables, plants, and animals before doing it on a human body are used today as well!


Sushruta
Surgical tools designed by Sushruta

Apart from surgery, Sushruta also wrote extensively about midwifery, cataract operations, rhinoplasty, code of ethics for teachers and students, use of wine as anesthesia, and so forth. His book ‘Sushruta Samhita’ is the first-ever systematic documentation of surgical experiences and medical facts. Hence, it is not only a significant source of information in Vedic Literature but also one of the principal books on Ayurveda.


Despite the volume of wisdom Sushruta Samhita held in its pages, its readership was limited to a few classes only. The reason may have been that it was written in Sanskrit, a language that was used by certain elite sections of the society only. Hence, some attempts were made to translate his work in other languages; for instance, in the eighth century A.D., Sushruta Samhita was translated into Arabic as Kitab-Shaw Shoon-a-Hindi and Kitab-i-Susrud. But still, for many years, Sushruta’s contribution remained hidden from the eyes of the public. However, his work reached a global audience thanks to a small yet significant incident.


Sushruta’s practice came into proper notice during the British Raj when a soldier in the British Army injured his nose severely by accident. His injury was considered to be beyond repair when a man who was one of the descendants of Sushruta’s small group of students used his guru's innovative methods and expertise in rhinoplasty to repair the soldier’s nose to its original state. The Britishers were completely baffled with this discovery and immediately started researching Sushruta's work. Very soon, Sushruta Samhita was translated into various languages- English, German, Latin, and so on.


Acharya Sushruta

In his book, A Short History of Medicine, famous historian Erwin Ackernecht quotes- “There is little doubt that plastic surgery in Europe which flourished in medieval Italy is a direct descendant of classical Indian surgery". Hence, it is all because of the well-documented practices of Acharya Sushruta- that today, people all over the world can undergo complicated surgeries and operations successfully.


Pratha Riya Hirani

Author

Riya Hirani

Pratha Content Writer