Sutures and Plasticity

Spinning silk into sutures: The decline of Japanese raw silk exports and the development of silk as a biomedical material in the twentieth century*

This paper examines how the raw material of silk became useful in postwar medicine, especially after the capital-generating industry of Japanese raw silk export declined. While the history of silk textiles is ancient and has attracted the interests of many scholars, alternative purposes of silk, such as surgical sutures, have received far less attention. I argue that re-examining silk and silkworm as proteins can illuminate the historical paths that have produced what seem like alternative uses of silk as biocompatible medicines and tools. Viewing protein as an analytic category offers a way to translate narratives centered around the historical fabrication of silk and textiles into the realm of medicine. Applying the lens of proteins especially facilitates the examination of silk as a biomaterial, a material synthesized from a biological entity with properties of that original lifeform. The attention to biomateriality encourages a translational stance that brings the importance of tactile materiality to the critical fore. In this case, proteinaceous expressions represent the translational product of the silkworm genome and the silkworm’s interaction with the mulberry plant. Historical cognizance of how biomateriality guides biomedical and engineering research on the molecular structure of silk sheds light on how silk has been translated into macro-level constructions in medicine. Thinking with the protein enables a recognition of the importance of silk  in the history of medicine, not least in terms of re-envisioning the mundane suture. The history of a biomaterial that holds wounds together and heals scars illuminates a strategy for understanding the emergent history of biomedical silk innovations. By interrogating how non-absorbent silk sutures became mass-produced by Japanese textile companies and used within the body — not just on the body — it is possible to comprehend how silk has gained new value as biocompatible protein. —Lisa Onaga

*Abstract for ICTAM IX, 6-12 August 2017