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Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America by David Serlin. University of Chicago Press, 2004, $25, 244 pages


After World War II, the U.S. underwent a massive cultural transformation that was vividly realized in the development and widespread use of new medical technologies. Plastic surgery, wonder drugs, artificial organs, and prosthetics inspired Americans to believe in a new age of modern medical miracles and the power of medicine to transform the lives and bodies of the disabled and those considered abnormal.


"David Serlin relocates the American fascination with using medicine to realign body with identity. [T]he quest for true self became a hallmark of Americanism in its grand struggle with world Communism." -- Journal of the American Medical Association

"David Serlin's remarkable book...presents four mid-20th-century case studies of troubled bodies. Analyzing veteran amputees supplied with prostheses; the A-bomb victims brought to the United States for plastic surgery in 1955, known as the Hiroshima Maidens; African American entertainer Gladys Bentley, who reported herself cured of the lesbian lifestyle by hormone treatments; sex-change pioneer Christine Jorgensen." -- Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins


David Serlin holds a Ph.D. in American Studies. He is coeditor of Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics and of Policing Public Sex: Queer Politics and the Future of AIDS Activism. Professor Serlin received the 1997 Gustav Meyers Center Award for a Book on the Subject of Human Rights in North America. He teaches at the University of California in San Diego.


David Serlin's voice sounds young on the phone as he tells me about his early life: "I was born in Thousand Oaks, which is in Ventura County near Los Angeles. At three and a half, the family and I went east, where I grew up. This is the start of my third year back in California, as Associate Professor of Communication and Science Studies at UCSD."

"One of the very popular courses you teach is called 'Politics of Bodies.' At the Smithsonian you've lectured about medical science and society. You combine your many interests in your remarkable book about body image and medical consumerism. So what do you make of body modification these days?"

"It's fascinating, you can turn on a reality TV show and watch someone selecting a new nose or a major body change."

"Which we then watch being made," I interject, squeamishly, "in living color -- the actual surgery."

"The desire to want to change yourself is a very old story. On a show like Extreme Makeover [or The Swan], there will be a woman looking in a mirror, saying, 'That's not the real me. I want a surgeon to help me become the real me.' People believe they can trump nature with technology."

"In New York, there's a person known as the Cat Woman, who is using cosmetic surgery to give herself feline features. She's had so much work done on her that she does resemble a cat."

"Or," says David Serlin, "there's the woman who has had several ribs removed and spent $50,000 on surgeries so that she can look like a human-sized Barbie doll."

"This is getting a little terrifying, no?"

"Or is it an extension of consumer culture that we're seeing?" says Professor Serlin.

"It seems to be at such an extreme, though; they're almost inventing themselves out of existence. Some of these folks have had so much surgery, their own features are gone somewhere else."

Professor Serlin disagrees: "People have been modifying their bodies for millennia. Scarification, circumcision, tattooing, piercing. There's a whole range we participate in. Is making yourself look like a cat, or removing ribs, body modification that's gone into a postmodern head spin, or is it just the evolution of something that's been going on for thousands of years?"

"Yeah," I say, "but it's coming to us now through the channel of medicine, which makes it so odd."

"Health, advertising, marketing, and entertainment have all been rolled together. Earlier, medicine was seen as something private. Today, people are participating in it [selecting surgeries], calling in to shows, e-mailing doctors."

"Plastic surgery, you write, started in response to the horrific wounds suffered by WWI soldiers."

"Actually, plastic surgery was first employed at the turn of the century, by people who wanted to change their self-image. German Jews who emigrated to the States and German Jews in Germany wanted certain traits changed so that they wouldn't have the stereotypical appearance of a Jewish face. A lot of skin lighteners and bleaches were also on the market for African Americans. But it's really after WWII that the kind of professional discipline we think of as plastic surgery developed. Surgeons who began as emergency medical practitioners in operating theaters in Europe returned home and took up reconstructive surgery."

"And with these procedures," I say, "comes the idea of replacing organs and rebuilding humans."

Professor Serlin pauses. "During and after WWII there is an unbelievable explosion of medical technologies, then cutting edge medications and devices -- everything from cortisone to dialysis machines."

"When does the idea of organ banks arrive?" I ask.

"In the '40s and '50s. The first are tissue and eye banks developed by the military. Blood banks, with the ability to separate plasma and store blood, are begun during the war. The ability to harvest organs, and transplant, that comes in the 1960s."

"Just after WWII, there is a group of women in Hiroshima called 'Keloid Girls,' disfigured from the effects of the atomic bombing. From them, a Methodist minister named Tonimoto selected 25 and brought them to the States."

"Yes," says Dr. Serlin. "These young women were hidden by their families, kept in cellars and not allowed to work, because their beauty was destroyed. A lot of their families were Shinto Buddhists and believed a disfigured child was evidence an ancestor had committed some terrible crime. Tonimoto organized the women, and they met in private in his church to share their experiences. Tonimoto had studied at Emory University. He had contacts in the U.S. and made arrangements. The 25 brought here were to be medically treated for their disfigurements."

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