Survivors of serious accidents often have to deal with lasting consequences. Some are left with facial disfigurement or lose entire limbs. But plastic surgery can help. In 1958, a young female doctor brought this discipline to Germany and became a role model for a whole generation of surgeons.
The first ever transplant of two complete arms was performed on a farmer from Germany’s Allgäu region, who lost both limbs after an accident with a maize chopper. Never before had such a large amount of foreign tissue been transplanted into a human being. The operation was a resounding success: a few years later, the patient was again able to ride a bicycle and drive a tractor without assistance.
This medical marvel took place in 2008 at the same spot where this type of surgery was pioneered in Germany fifty years earlier: the Klinikum rechts der Isar hospital of the Technical University of Munich (TUM). In 1958, young doctor Ursula Schmidt-Tintemann established a department for plastic surgery here – the first of its kind in Germany.
The patients were mainly victims of fire, acid, war and accidents. Together with her colleagues, Schmidt-Tintemann worked to reconstruct faces and injured body parts. They transplanted tissue such as skin, nerves and bone to restore damaged areas of the body and close wounds. Above all, Schmidt-Tintemann’s aim was healing and helping people. Doctors from all over Germany came to Munich to be trained by her.
After the Second World War, plastic surgery was already established in other countries but there was no sign of this discipline in Germany. During a period of study in Vienna, Austria, Ursula Schmidt-Tintemann came across this discipline herself and then went on to train in plastic surgery in the US and UK. When she opened her own department at TUM’s Klinikum rechts der Isar hospital in 1958, this marked the birth of plastic surgery in Germany.
In the male-dominated surgical world, it is unusual – even today – for a woman to establish a new discipline. Back in the late 1950s, it was nothing short of a sensation. With her work as a doctor, her assertiveness and her ethical principles, Ursula Schmidt-Tintemann had a profound influence on plastic surgery. Thanks to her, it became a highly regarded discipline in Germany, associated with exacting moral and ethical standards. And Schmidt-Tintemann herself became a role model for a whole generation of plastic surgeons.
Schmidt-Tintemann viewed her work as a reconstructive surgical discipline – intended to restore the form, function and esthetics of the body in strict accordance with medical indications. She remained wary of purely cosmetic procedures throughout her life. “Unfortunately, the term ‘plastic surgery’ is often misused,” she said with regret. “It encompasses so much more than just cosmetic interventions.” However, she stopped short of a blanket rejection of surgery solely on esthetic grounds, for instance citing psychological reasons as possible grounds for cosmetic interventions.
“As a pioneer in her field, she brought national prestige and international visibility to TUM’s medical faculty and Klinikum rechts der Isar hospital. She set a precedent both medically and ethically for subsequent generations of esthetic plastic surgeons and is regarded as a role model for women in medicine.”
Wolfgang A. Herrmann, President of the Technical University of Munich