Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America

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."

"By then the American press is calling them the Hiroshima Maidens," I interject.

"Tonimoto had been approached by Ralph Edwards, who wanted to devote an episode of his popular TV show to him. This Is Your Life was a forerunner of reality-TV shows. It would ambush a celebrity, a famous person, a hero, then bring on people from their past, introduced as voices they might not have heard in years. The unidentified voice would bring in details from the individual's life, revealing something about them, before being reunited. At the very end, host Ralph Edwards would present his guest with a scrapbook that memorialized it all."

"Did Ralph Edwards think this episode was a way to promote cultural reconciliation?"

"No doubt. And it was quite amazing. Ralph Edwards decided to put two of the women on the show, but behind a screen, in silhouette only, to preserve their privacy. This also made the Maidens enormously enigmatic at the same time and was an alienating experience for the women, hidden behind screens like shadow puppets."

"Ralph Edwards," I remind Serlin, "surprised Tonimoto with his family, who'd flown across the Pacific. But the real surprise was Robert Lewis."

"Yes, Lewis was the copilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima. He had agreed to appear on the program, but when he realized what he was about to face, he retreated to the nearest bar. Staff brought him back to the studio and plied him with lots of coffee. Toward the end of the show, Ralph Edwards recounted the moments leading up to the dropping of the bomb, then brought out Lewis, who appeared on stage sweating and uncomfortable. Tonimoto looked like a deer in the headlights. The two were urged to shake hands, which they did. It's about the most awkward thing I've ever seen; it's kind of horrifying."

"Your book is full of ironies. One of them is that, not long after the Hiroshima Maidens had their operations, plastic surgery became an elective procedure. And very popular, with people getting face-lifts and nose jobs and tucks in the pursuit of youth. And, for Asians, it meant round eyes and Westernization of their features -- they could change their racial appearance."

"Yes, all over Asia epicanthic folds were converted to Western eyelids. Colored contact lenses were introduced, pronounced cheekbones were reduced, foreheads made more Western. A huge business."

"You write that by WWII, prosthetics become quite sophisticated, and there is a real attempt made to restore soldiers' limbs and masculinity."

"Yes," says Professor Serlin. "Since most troops were working class, the goal was to return them to the workplace, back to industrial work on a factory floor, in a plant. The replacement limbs reflected this and became more ambitious and motorized, employing all sorts of technology: pneumatic tubes that would allow the arm to extend, and electrodes hooked up to residual muscles to re-create motor skills. Ironically, this very development in robotic arms leads to industrial robots, which take over assembly-line work and by the mid '70s displace most workers."

"Another huge area of body modification that started after WWII involved hormones. Hormones were held to be miraculous agents, as evident in the story you tell about Gladys Bentley."

"She was impressive," says Professor Serlin. "Gladys Bentley was a flashy nightclub performer in Harlem in the 1920s and '30s. She was black and openly gay. Gladys even married her white girlfriend in 1928 in a ceremony in Atlantic City."

"You refer to her as a 'bulldagger.'"

"That was a term used mostly by working-class lesbians back then. 'Bull dyke' would be a more common term today."

"Gladys was a big woman."

"Yes, and as out there as it was possible to be. Years later, however, in 1953, she announces herself in a magazine article as a natural woman again. A hormone imbalance is given as the reason for her lesbianism and raucousness. Injected with hormones, she is cooking, cleaning, being middle class."

"The pictures with the article are hysterical. Gladys in the kitchen; Gladys ironing."

"People talked about hormones in the '50s the way people now talk about genetics. It was believed your glands and hormones determined your identity. People with immature endocrine systems could rebalance their bodies and make themselves happy and healthy -- normal."

"Where they'd want to cook dinner and vacuum," I laugh. "Bentley's experience is benign, compared to Turing's. Alan Turing was a genius cryptographer during the Second World War and credited with breaking major enemy codes. A real hero. After the war, he's arrested for indecency and sentenced to having hormone treatments."

"In England," says Professor Serlin, "it was called orgotherapy. Exactly the same treatment prescribed for Turing's homosexuality was prescribed for Gladys Bentley's lesbianism. Turing was diagnosed as having excessive testosterone, which led to his criminal acts. If his hormone network could be neutralized, effeminized, he would have less desire for men. However, the hormones induced gynecomastia, enlarged breasts. He took his life not long after."

"The treatment was also called chemical castration," I add. "Turing kills himself in an incredibly poignant and symbolic way."

"Yes, he dips an apple in cyanide and eats it."

"He's sort of reversing the Garden of Eden. You write: 'Turing chose deliberately to appropriate the symbol of the express the death of self-knowledge, rather than its traditional acquisition.'"

We're quiet for a moment. "What," I ask, "do you think of so many star athletes taking hormones and other body enhancing substances?"

"Every athlete is using some form of technology. The idea that there is some pure body that is not mediated by performance-enhancing machines and drugs is ludicrous. We are using technologies to enhance our bodies. We're all doing it."

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