16th Century Nose Jobs

  • By Anna Rothschild
  • Posted 09.05.13
  • NOVA

Losing one's nose was not completely uncommon in 16th century Europe. To replace their lost sniffers, some brave patients underwent an early form of rhinoplasty, which was performed without antibiotics or anesthesia.

Running Time: 02:19


16th Century Nose Jobs

Posted: September 5, 2013

Thinking about getting a nose job? Thank goodness it’s not the 16th century.

Turns out people actually got nose jobs in 16th century Europe. But they weren’t due to vanity—they were because of two major causes of nose loss. The first was swords: it wasn’t completely uncommon to lose your nose in a duel. In fact, Tycho Brahe, the 16th century astronomer, lost his nose in a dispute over a mathematical formula. For the rest of his life, he wore a brass nose.

The second cause was syphilis. The disease was a big problem in 16th century Europe, and in its later stages, it can cause tumor-like growths called “gummas.” When they form on the nose, they can eat away at the healthy flesh and basically just leave a rotting mass of tissue on your face.

In order to replace all these lost noses, two brothers in Italy came up with an early form of rhinoplasty. The process went something like this: They would make two incisions on your bicep, slide a knife under the skin between the incisions, and then shove some fabric or cloth under the skin flap they’d created. They would leave the fabric there for about three weeks—to make sure the skin didn’t reattach to the muscle—at which point they would cut off one end of the flap and sew it on to your face. You’d basically have to walk around with your head attached to your bicep for about two weeks! Then, they would cut off the other end of the flap, mold the whole thing into a nose-like shape, and sew that onto your face as well.

That all sound horrifying enough, but remember, this was 16th century Europe. There were no antibiotics, there were no good antiseptics. So basically it was quite possible that you would die of sepsis because of your nose job. On top of that, there was no anesthesia, so you were awake for this entire process.

So, if you don’t like your nose, or you have syphilis, be thankful you live in the 21st century.




Produced, edited, and hosted by
Anna Rothschild
Written by
Anna Rothschild and Alison Bruzek
Researched by
Alison Bruzek
Original Footage
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2013


(Behandlung Syphiliskranker)
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
CDC via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
(Illustrations of 16th Century Nose Job)
Gaspare Tagliacozzi/Public Domain
(Tycho Brahe)
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain


(main image: Illustration of 16th Century Nose Job)
Gaspare Tagliacozzi/Public Domain

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