Meet Harold Gillies, the World War I surgeon who reconstructed the faces of injured soldiers

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Meet Harold Gillies, the World War I surgeon who reconstructed the faces of injured soldiers

Enlarge / British troops move into the trenches east of Ypres in October 1917. A new book by historian Lindsey Fitzharris examines the stories of those soldiers who suffered serious facial injuries and the pioneering surgeon who restored their faces: Harold Gillies.

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In August 1917, a British World War I soldier named John Glubb was hit in the face by a grenade. He remembered blood spurting out and he felt something like a chicken bone move around his left cheek. It turned out that it was half of his jaw that had snapped off from the impact.

Glubb wasn’t the only unfortunate WWI soldier to suffer a disfiguring facial injury. Shells filled with shrapnel were meant to do as much damage as possible, and the need to peer over the parapets of trenches to assess the battlefield or fire a shot meant a greater risk of being hit in the face by flying metal. As opposed to losing a limb, these soldiers faced great social and professional stigma when they returned home from the front lines because of their disfigurement. They were usually reduced to night shifts and relegated to special blue benches when out in public – a warning to others to avert their eyes.

Fortunately for these men, a New Zealand-born surgeon named Harold Gillies dedicated his life to developing innovative facial reconstruction techniques after witnessing the carnage firsthand while serving on the front lines. At home, he set up a special unit for soldiers with facial wounds at Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot and eventually persuaded his superiors that a special hospital was warranted. He is often referred to as the “Father of Plastic Surgery” due to his pioneering work at the Queen’s Hospital (later renamed Queen Mary’s Hospital) at Frognal House in Sidcup.

Gillies is a key character in a new book by author and medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris entitled The Facemaker: A visionary surgeon’s struggle to heal the disfigured soldiers of World War I. A well-known science communicator with a big one Twitter follows and a penchant for the medically macabre, Fitzharris published a biography of surgical pioneer Joseph Lister, The butcher artin 2017 – a great if occasionally chilling read.

Her work soon caught the attention of the Smithsonian Channel, who hired Fitzharris to host her 2020 documentary series revisiting infamous historical cold cases. The Strange Life and Death of…. Fitzharris usually has several book ideas simmering on the back burner at the same time. For example, she has a children’s book out next year illustrated by her husband, cartoonist/caricaturist Adrian Teal, and is already working on a third book about a 19th-century surgeon named Joseph Bell, the author of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes inspired.

The face maker wasn’t her first choice for a follow-up too The butcher artsince she wasn’t very familiar with the First World War. But her publisher loved the Gillies story, so Fitzharris gave herself a crash course in the history of the period. “The art of butchering focuses on one man, Joseph Lister, who applied the germ theory to medical practice,” Fitzharris told Ars. “This is a book, not about one man, but about many men. It’s about Harold Gillies, the pioneering surgeon who reconstructed the faces of soldiers during World War I, but it’s also about these disfigured men. I hope their voices really shine through in the narrative.”

Ars spoke to Fitzharris to learn more.

(Warning: some graphic facial reconstruction photos and descriptions follow.)

US Army trainees in trenches on the Western Front during World War I, France, 1918. The need to peer over the parapets led to a dramatic increase in facial injuries from shrapnel, which were often quite disfiguring.
Enlarge / US Army trainees in trenches on the Western Front during World War I, France, 1918. The need to peer over the parapets led to a dramatic increase in facial injuries from shrapnel, which were often quite disfiguring.

Archive Photos/Getty Images

Ars Technica: It’s such a huge topic. How did you narrow the focus so that the scope was manageable?

Lindsey Fitzharris: True, it was a much more complicated story. I think that’s why it took me five years to write, dealing with the magnitude of World War I, military medicine at the time, and all these complicated advances. One of the challenges of World War I is that there is so much material: so many diaries and letters from the soldiers writing about their experiences. Someone asked me what the difference is between academic history and the economic history that I write. A lot of what I do now is discard information. I include a lot in my research, but I put that aside because I don’t want to overwhelm the reader. I want to find the pulse of history.

It was clear to me from the start that I wanted to throw the reader into the trenches. There is a man named Percy Clair who wrote this beautiful journal which enabled me to tell the story of what it was like to be injured, punched in the face and lying on the battlefield for quite a long time before dying recovered. I wanted readers to understand how difficult it was to first leave the battlefield and then get to Gillies because Clair was initially admitted to the wrong hospital.

There have also been complications with accessing patient records in the UK and what you can and cannot say in relation to a patient’s name. When I use a patient’s name The face maker, because this knowledge is public or Gillies published it himself at some point. If Gillies published something about a particular patient, if I went through the case files and found additional information that he had not included, I could not use that information in conjunction with that person’s name. The butcher art did not have this complication because it was set in the 19th century. Everything was old enough that we didn’t have to worry about any of that. But a lot of material for The face maker is protected by copyright. I had to contact Percy Clair’s family members for permission to quote from his journal to the extent that I did.

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