Sunday, January 15, 2012

Rebuilding the Soldier's Body: Plastic Surgery and Prosthetics in WWI

A soldier with a disfiguring injury receives a mask. Anna Coleman Ladd Papers, 1881-1950. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Amid the "dissertissitudes" of life lately (such as working diligently to revise or, to be more accurate, essentially rewrite a dissertation chapter), I have run across a snippet of research that I thought was good for sharing on "Ghosts of 1914." It is on the very fascinating history of plastic surgery and facial prostheses in the aftermath of WWI.

A sculptor or artist at work on a mask. Anna Coleman Ladd Papers, 1881-1950. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Soldiers who were lucky enough to survive the modern killing machines of the Great War were, quite often, injured and/or maimed in significant ways. One of the most devastating sorts of injuries for a veteran was facial disfigurement, something that could significantly challenge his chances at reintegrating into civilian life, whether at home or within his community.

The field of plastic surgery, about which we remain fascinated even as its procedures become increasingly normalized in our culture (for instance, on the big or small screen, it seems near-impossible to find a female--or even, sometimes, a male--forehead not strangely immobilized or eyebrows not fiercely stretched, lips not comically blocky and protruding, etc., etc., etc.), already existed by the time of the Great War. However, the particularly destructive technologies of the war forced the medical field to adapt in major ways to a new set of demands on their aesthetic and surgical abilities, as Smithsonian Magazine's Caroline Alexander writes in a brilliant 2007 article. Where surgery could not fully rebuild a badly-affected face, artists were employed in crafting ingenious prosthetics that could be worn over the damaged feature so as to give the soldier an approximation of his pre-war appearance. In film footage of American artist Anna Coleman Ladd at work from the Smithsonian Magazine website, it looks like plaster casts (like life-masks) of the faces of the injured are used in the process of making a facial prosthesis.  At one moment, we see a soldier demonstrating just such a "mask," worn over his jaw and chin. Another is fitted with a mask that covers part of the upper portion of his face.

Repairing or restoring a soldier's face was not about frivolous vanity or a quest for some sort of ideal beauty. Instead, it had everything to do with restoring a soldier's place on the homefront--with repairing or at least helping to support the bridge between the worlds of combat and civilian life.

© Fiona Robinson

Sources and Further Reading:


  1. Last summer the Tate had an exhibition of British watercolors, and there's one artist very relevant to this post who you might want to check out-- Herbert Cole (aka Rix Carlton), who was assigned to depict wounded soldiers before facial reconstruction surgery. They're disturbing and unflinching but also sympathetically done.

    Here's a link to one image: