Was There Cleft Palate Surgery in the 19th Century?


Surprisingly, there is evidence of cleft lip and palate surgery as far back as 390 BC in China. The Egyptians and Greeks also developed cleft palate ‘surgical’ techniques, though no descriptions of these remain.

There are descriptions of operations on cleft lip in the Middle Ages, and further evidence of cleft lip repairs pop up in European literature from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Even so, none of them involved advanced procedures.

Cleft palate surgery in the 19th century though was a different story.

Physicians Performing Cleft Palate Surgery in the 19th

Early procedures before the 19th century mostly involved freshening cleft edges and suturing them together. It wasn’t until 1816, however, that the first successful cleft palate surgery was recorded.

One of the major reasons for this was the development of effective anesthetics. Without them, the procedure was difficult and very painful.  Karl Ferdinand Gräfe and Philibert Joseph Roux were the first to publish a satisfactory result. From there, others followed.

Philibert Joseph Roux

Trained as a military surgeon, Philibert Joseph Roux moved to Paris and befriended Xavier Bichat. Bichat was a well-known anatomist and pathologist and had a major influence on Roux.

As he moved up the ranks, Roux would eventually become chief surgeon at Hôtel-Dieu de Paris. He is most remembered for being among the first to perform a staphylorrhaphy, or surgical repair of a cleft palate.

Improving upon the earlier works performed by von Gräfe, Roux would go on to write a memoir that provided details of the procedure that involved working on an infant’s mouth.

Victor von Bruns

Meanwhile, in early 19th century Germany, surgeon Victor von Bruns was making advances in plastic surgery and laryngology. As a founding member of the German Society of Surgery, he was most well-known for his impressive reconstruction of the cheek and lip in patients who had experienced trauma. He also gained fame for his surgical resections for cancer and other diseases.

Furthermore, he popularized the use of absorbent cotton dressings, which has since become a standard practice in treating wounds.

John Collins Warren

Founder of the New England Journal of Medicine, John Collins Warren was an American surgeon who was revolutionary in the field of anesthesia during the first half of the 19th century. He was also the first dean of Harvard Medical School and the third president of the American Medical Association.

In 1846, he removed a tumor from his patient’s neck. It was the first time ether was used to ease the pain from a surgical procedure. Along with another surgeon William Morton, Warren would continue to champion the use of sulphuric ether for surgical operations.

One of Warren’s works describes the first American procedure for soft palate repair. He had been completely unaware of Roux’s description which had been published three years previous to that.

Cleft Palate Surgery Gives Many a Reason to Smile

Technology and innovation have come a long way since cleft palate surgery in the 19th century. And it’s because of all this past work that today’s cleft lip and palate surgeries are far more predictable and incredibly safe.

Though plastic surgery is a newer field, it has a colorful history. Be sure to keep checking back with our blog for more great stories on how plastic surgery has evolved.

And if you’re interested in exploring all of the plastic surgery procedures we offer, please contact us today!