Modern plastic surgery techniques have historical basis


As a dermatologist and plastic surgeon in Marin County, Dr. Keith Denkler is used to turning back the hands of time. His latest work doesn't involve cosmetic surgery, but a long-forgotten doctor who helped pioneer it.

"Dr. John Woodbury was an early century dermatologist. His story is pretty incredible," he says. "He had a practice in Albany, and in 1887 the first cosmetic internal nose job was done in Albany, under cocaine anesthesia."

Denkler has spent the last several years researching Woodbury's meteoric career. It's a history splashed across century old newspapers and magazines that Woodbury advertised in on a scale unheard of before or since.

"If you don't like your nose now, surgeons can change it," Denkler reads from an ad published in the New York Sun in 1892.

Far from a snake oil salesman, he says Woodbury was a visionary surgeon, whose technique for tightening wrinkles on the forehead was a rudimentary version of brow lifts performed today. Woodbury used before and after photos designed to sell marriage-minded women on the value of his nose job. He even used his own face to sell a line of soap and cosmetic aids.

During the height of his career at the turn of the century Woodbury ran a string of clinics, with several dozen doctors working for him.

But if Woodbury was so successful, you might wonder why he's slipped from the history books. Part of the answer lies in the very same advertising that launched his empire -- advertising that would soon catch the attention of the powerful and perhaps jealous medical society

"Advertising was declared illegal in the states of New York, under pressure from the medical society," says Denkler. "So Woodbury's office manager was arrested for corporate advertising. His clinics were shut down, and Woodbury went bankrupt."

Stripped of his license to practice medicine, Woodbury retreated to a boarding house, and eventually killed himself. It would be decades before cosmetic surgery would reach a mainstream audience again, and nearly a century before medical advertising would be replicated on anything near Woodbury's scale.

"He was an original. He was a marketing wizard," says Denkler. "It's really a sad story of a man ahead of his time."

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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