Plastic Surgery

Monday, September 16th, 2019

Wounded Soldiers of the First World War

War has always produced injuries, and inevitably scars, but by the time we reach the First World War weaponry had developed dramatically causing an array of new injuries. Weapons shifted from small fire-arms to heavy artillery which could distort flesh in horrific ways, and many soldiers suffered this injury to the face as they would peer over the top of trenches. The reason for a lot of these wounds was shrapnel shells which were designed to cause maximum damage to the enemy. In attempts to try and reconfigure soldier’s faces pioneering new surgery and prosthetic masks were developed, which would also have positive psychological impacts too.

Harold Gillies

Harold Gillies was a New Zealander who trained as a surgeon in England. In 1915 he was posted to France and after witnessing this new kind of gruesome facial injury he returned to England, where in 1917 the Queen’s Hospital at Frognal House was established. Located in Sidcup, south-east London, it was the first hospital dedicated to facial injuries and plastic surgery. Gillies’s form of surgery aimed to restore the original functions to the face, like eating, whilst also recreating the appearance of the soldier. Skin grafts (using healthy tissue on the body to help heal a wound) had already been carried out in Europe but Gillies was the pioneer who refined the technique and applied it to thousands of men. The exact likeness of a man could never be achieved, with the surgery resulting in a patch over the injury, but this was preferred by patients to the horrible scars that initially marked their faces. Unfortunately for some men the surgery that Gillies offered could not fix their severe disfigurements so masks were made from a plaster cast of the patient’s face.

Francis Derwent Wood

Francis Derwent Wood was a British sculptor who, on the outbreak of the First World War, volunteered in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Like Gillies, Wood witnessed severe facial disfigurements but realised that his talent as an artist could be used to construct masks for the men who could not be repaired by surgery, as he said “my work begins where the work of the surgeon is completed.” The demand for masks led Wood to establish the ‘Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department’ at the Third London General Hospital in 1916, known to soldiers as the ‘Tin Noses Shop’. Wood’s masks were made from thin copper that was intricately sculpted to reshape the missing or distorted part of the face and was painted to match photographs of the men from before their injuries. The creation of one mask was a challenging process, especially trying to match the patient’s skin tone, but they were all worth the effort as each provided a renewed self-confidence for the men, who feared how the world and their families would react to their injuries.

Whether it was pioneering plastic surgery or intricately moulded masks, the lives of soldiers with serious facial wounds were dramatically changed by the treatment they received from both Gillies and Wood. For these men the stories of their scars may not be one they would want to share but the work of Gillies and Wood helped to return them to a relatively normal life without fear of judgement.

To hear more about the history of the scar, listen to our podcast!

By Jasmine Lethbridge

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