The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon's Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I
“The Facemaker proves an absorbing story of a remarkable surgeon rising to the demands of the most horrifying wounds of modern warfare.”
The savagery of World War I was written across the faces of some 280,000 soldiers from France, Germany, and Britain. All were disfigured by facial trauma.
They lost eyes, noses, and jaws. Some had pulpy faces.
“Unlike amputees, men whose facial features were disfigured were not necessarily celebrated as heroes,” writes historian Lindsey Fitzharris, an Oxford PhD whose The Butchering Art, about the Victorian surgeon Joseph Lister, won the 2018 PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. “Whereas a missing leg might elicit sympathy and respect, a damaged face often caused feelings of revulsion and disgust.”
In The Facemaker, her inspiring biography of pioneering New Zealand surgeon Harold Gillies (1882–1960), she recreates the stories of these gruesome wartime injuries and the work of an early father of plastic surgery, whose miraculous-seeming repair of broken faces and jaws restored the lives of thousands of British combatants.
“These soldiers’ lives were often left as shattered as their faces. Robbed of their very identities, such men came to symbolize the worst of a new, mechanized form of war,” she writes.
Wedding engagements were broken. Children fled at the sight of their fathers.
Technological advances had introduced tanks and airplanes to warfare—all potentially fiery infernos. Other “ghastly innovations” of World War I included flamethrowers, which produced a deadly stream of burning oil, and chlorine gas and other chemical weapons that left soldiers staggering blindly across battlefields.
Doctors and nurses faced enormous challenges.
“Whereas a prosthetic limb did not necessarily have to resemble the arm or leg it was replacing, a face was a different matter,” writes Fitzharris. “Any surgeon willing to take on the monumental task of reconstructing a soldier’s face had to not only address loss of function, such as the ability to eat, but also consider aesthetics in order to reflect what society deemed acceptable.”
Enter Harold Gillies. Volunteering, at the age of 32, to work with the Red Cross shortly after Britain joined the war, in 1914, he soon assembled an unusual multidisciplinary team of surgeons, physicians, dentists, radiologists, artists, sculptors, mask-makers, and photographers to reconstruct war-torn faces.
The visionary Gillies pioneered plastic surgery methods that set standards for the then-obscure field of medicine.
“Don’t worry, sonny . . . you’ll be all right and have as good a face as most of us before we’re finished with you,” he would tell his patients.
Said one nurse, “He would set to work on some man who had had half his face literally blown to pieces with the skin hanging in shreds, and the jaw-bones crushed to pulp that felt like sand under your fingers.”
The book includes before and after photos that attest to his many successes. (Alas, there were also failures.)
The author emphasizes the great care and compassion that Gillies exhibited in his reconstructive work in England, first at Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot and then at Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup. Before operating, he would “obsess” over details of the procedure, anticipating any problems that might arise.
He had “an extraordinary ability to see past a soldier’s disfigurement,” writes the author, and a “puckish personality” that endeared him to recovering patients.
A grim topic, to be sure, but The Facemaker proves an absorbing story of a remarkable surgeon rising to the demands of the most horrifying wounds of modern warfare.