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It is 50 years since the first breast enlargement using silicone implants. Today it rates as the second-most popular form of cosmetic surgery worldwide, undergone by 1.

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It was spring when Timmie Jean Lindsey, a mother-of-six lay down on the operating table at Jefferson Davis hospital in Houston, Texas. Over the next two hours, she went from a B to a C cup, in an operation that made history.

Though the operation boosted her self-confidence - and she enjoyed the extra attention - she had never planned to have a breast augmentation. Lindsey had been to hospital to get a tattoo removed from her breasts, and it was then that doctors asked if she would consider volunteering for this first-of-its-kind operation.

My ears stood out like Dumbo!

And they said 'Oh we'll do that too. The surgeons were two ambitious pioneers, Frank Gerow and Thomas Cronin. It was Gerow who had first come up with the plan for a new kind of breast implant.

The first guinea pig for the silicone implant was a dog named Esmeralda. The basic principle behind the prototype was simple. The implant was inserted under the skin and left for a couple of weeks, until she chewed at her stitches and it had to be removed.

The operation was deemed a success and Gerow declared that the implants were "as harmless as water". Soon after, the medical team began looking for women to try out the implants. Timmie Jean Lindsey has only a hazy recollection of her operation day.

The doctors were pleased with their work. But, at the time, Biggs had no idea quite what they had on their hands. The time seemed right. It was the decade in which Playboy magazine and Barbie launched, and film stars played a big role too. Through the years, all manner of approaches had been tried to increase breast size.

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In the s, doctors started inserting sponge implants into women's breasts. Some allege that Marilyn Monroe had this operation, though this is hotly contested. Monroe biographer Anthony Summers says people he interviewed for his book, who knew her well - including Billy Travilla, who was both her dressmaker and one of her lovers - said she had no reason at all to have any breast enhancement.

The sponge technique worked well at first, but did not last - the sponges soon shrank, and became "hard as baseballs" says Biggs. Silicone was also a material of the moment.

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It is not in the US, though, that the silicone was first used for breast enlargement, but in Japan, where it was tried out by prostitutes. Eager to do better trade with the occupying US forces, who they pd preferred a larger chest, they experimented by injecting silicone - stolen from the docks of Yokohama - direct into the breast.

These injections turned out to have a nasty side-effect known as "silicone rot", in which gangrene set in around the injection site. The early silicone breast implants pioneered in the US fortunately avoided this hitch, but were not entirely problem-free.

Hematoma, where blood collects in a swelling, was one early difficulty. There were cases of infections too, and also "fibrous capsular contractions" where a scar would form, making the implant hard.

A brief history of breast enlargements

There have been many advances over the decades, like 3D-imaging, and implants that are increasingly rupture-proof - and the range has widened. Now we have over choices," says Biggs.

Around the world, breast enlargement is now the second-most popular cosmetic surgery operation, after liposuction the removal of fat. In many countries - including the UK - it is the most popular operation.

It's not only used by women who want to perfect their body shape but also by patients who have undergone mastectomy as a result of breast cancer. This was something Gerow and Cronin envisaged from the start, and one of their motives for developing the operation. For many years, Timmie Jean Lindsey kept fairly quiet about her breast enlargement - one boyfriend never knew for example, and it was only decades later that she told many of her friends and family about it. Fifty years on she remains delighted with thethough there is no stopping the passing of time, she says.

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That surprised me. I figured they'd just stay where they were. But she still very happy with the little piece of history she carries inside her body. You can download a podcast of the programme or browse the archive.

International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

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