Your book focuses on Harold Gillies, a surgeon in the First World War who made huge strides in facial reconstruction surgery. But how far back in history can we trace plastic surgery?

It pre-dates the First World War, so I don’t want anyone to think that Harold Gillies is the father of plastic surgery as a whole. The term “plastic surgery” was coined in 1798. At that time, plastic meant something that you could mould and shape – so in this instance, a patient’s skin or soft tissue. And attempts at early reconstruction of the face or to alter the appearance tended to focus on really small areas of the face. Rhinoplasty [reconstructing the nose] is one of the oldest surgical procedures on record, dating back to around 600 BC. It wasn’t until the American Civil War that there were attempts to reconstruct the entire face, and even then it was quite limited.


How has facial disfigurement been viewed through history?

Disfigurement has been strongly associated with shame, because of its association with disease. Syphilis, which ravaged much of the world for centuries, caused “saddle nose”, where the nose would cave in. People associated syphilis – and the disfigurement it caused – with a moral failing.

The other thing was that sometimes someone would be purposely disfigured as a form of punishment: people’s noses were injured purposefully for sexual transgressions such as prostitution or adultery. And this stigma really continues even to today. If you look at Hollywood movies a lot of villains are facially disfigured, like the Joker or the Phantom of the Opera, and that’s a really lazy trope to say that the person is evil or has some kind of moral failing.

You write that there was a huge need for facial reconstruction during the First World War. Why was this?

Trench warfare led to sky-high rates of facial injuries – many combatants were shot in the face simply because they had no idea what to expect. One surgeon wrote: “They seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of machine-gun bullets.” Men were maimed, they were gassed, they were kicked in the face by horses. During the war, around 280,000 men from France, Britain and Germany alone suffered facial trauma.

This was a time when losing a limb made you a hero, but losing a face made you a monster to a society that was largely intolerant to facial differences. Whereas a prosthetic limb doesn’t necessarily need to look like the arm or leg it’s replacing, a face is an entirely different matter.

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Any surgeon willing to undertake the monumental task of reconstructing a soldier’s face at this time not only had to consider the loss of function such as the inability to eat or to swallow, but they also had to consider the aesthetic, so that the face was deemed socially acceptable. As a result, plastic surgery flourished during the First World War, and was eventually ushered into the modern era by men like Harold Gillies.

How did Gillies first become involved in facial reconstruction?

Gillies was an ENT (ear, nose and throat) surgeon, and he volunteered to go over with the British Red Cross when the war broke out. He was introduced to facial reconstruction on the western front by a really amazing character called Charles Valadier. He was a French-American dentist who retrofitted his Rolls Royce with a dental chair and drove it to the front under a hail of bullets; I mean, he was an absolute legend.

So Gillies went back to Britain and petitioned to open his own specialty facial reconstruction unit at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot, and that’s how it all began. Eventually he was so overwhelmed by the number of men needing his help that in 1917 he opened the Queen’s Hospital, which later became Queen Mary’s Hospital, in Sidcup – a hospital dedicated to facial reconstruction.

What was unique about his approach to facial reconstruction?

Gillies wasn’t the only surgeon operating on faces in this period. There were people in other countries that were doing this – like Jacques Joseph, a Jewish-German surgeon working for the Germans – but they tended to work alone. They didn’t bring on, for instance, dental technicians, who were actually really key in facial reconstruction.
Gillies was the opposite and recognised their importance from the start.

He brought a dental surgeon called William Kelsey Fry into the Queen’s Hospital, and really worked in tandem with him. While they were reconstructing a patient’s jaw, for instance, Kelsey Fry would be working on aligning the teeth and the jaw and getting all of the prosthetics in place, and Gillies was working on the missing chunks from the face, and the soft tissues that were damaged. So it was really a team effort.

What other professions did Gillies collaborate with?

He also brought in artists, photographers, radiographers and mask makers, building a wonderful creative team who all worked towards rebuilding a soldier’s face. One of the artists was Henry Tonks, who’s quite famous in his own right, and he spent a lot of time at the Queen’s Hospital drawing these men in the colours of the war, such as lurid greens and crimson reds [in doing so, Tonks provided a more vivid picture of their injuries than black-and-white photos]. The artists made diagrams of the surgeries, too, which proved hugely important.

How did mask-making fit into plastic surgery?

The masks were non-surgical solutions that were created by artists like the sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd, who worked out of a studio in Paris. And they’re exquisite – when you look at them, it looks almost like a human face. But you have to remember that they are still unmovable. If you were sitting in front of someone wearing one of these masks, it could be a bit unsettling because the masks were expressionless; they couldn’t operate like a face. They were also very uncomfortable to wear, they were fragile, they didn’t age with the patient. So long-term, they weren’t really a solution.

Anna Coleman Ladd fits a disfigured soldier with a mask
Anna Coleman Ladd fits a disfigured soldier with a mask. Although Gillies disliked masks, he recognised their importance in the recovery process (Photo by Alamy)

Gillies himself would employ masks, although he hated them because the masks reminded him of the limitations of what he was doing surgically. But sometimes when a patient was recovering – and it could take more than a decade to rebuild a soldier’s face – perhaps they might want to wear a mask to go out into society and not be stared at.

How did the men react when they saw their injuries?

Gillies banned mirrors on the ward, under the guise of protecting the men. When you’re going through facial reconstruction, your face can sometimes look worse before it looks better; it’s a process, and he didn’t want the soldiers to get frustrated with that process. But it also instilled in them a belief that they had faces that weren’t worth looking at, and it could be really lonely and isolating. These men were also forced to sit on brightly painted blue benches when they left the hospital grounds, so the public knew not to look at them. They were constantly getting feedback that there was something wrong with their faces.

Despite the mirror ban, sometimes they still saw their reflections. There’s a story of a Corporal X, we don’t know his name. One of the nurses working at the hospital tells this story about how when he was brought there he was fully bandaged.

He kept joking about how he wanted these bandages to be taken off, because his fiancée Molly would want to come and visit, and he didn’t want to scare her. And eventually the bandages were taken off and he got a glimpse of his face in a shaving mirror that had been smuggled into the hospital, and he became really despondent after seeing his wounds.

The nurse told him: “Well, you should have Molly come and visit.” And eventually he said he would never see Molly again. He had written to her and told her he had met another woman in France and broken off their engagement, because he said he didn’t want to be a burden on her. And he apparently then went and lived a life of self-imposed isolation. So some of these stories are really tragic.

How did the press present Gillies and his work?

When the Queen’s Hospital first opened, the press said it was a miracle. But they were also presenting facial injuries as the worst thing that could happen to someone. In fact, it was one of the few injuries during the First World War that warranted a full pension. A facial injury wouldn’t necessarily stop these men from working, but that’s how badly society believed being disfigured was. So the language around disfigurement was harsh in these newspapers, and again, Gillies was presented entirely in a positive light.

But I want to stress that Gillies was very much a product of the facial bias around him as well. He was going above and beyond what was perhaps surgically necessary so that he could rebuild faces by the standards of what people deemed acceptable at the time.

What were some of his biggest innovations in plastic surgery?

He invented a technique in transplanting skin that dramatically reduced the chance of infection. Previously, surgeons would raise a flap of skin somewhere else on the body to be transplanted, and leave it attached at one end to keep the blood flowing – this attaching bit of tissue is called a pedicle. Then the surgeon could re-attach the loose side of the flap to the area they wanted to reconstruct, and when it formed its own blood vessels there it could be severed at the pedicle.

But when you raise a flap of skin the underside is exposed, so all the blood vessels there are vulnerable to infection – and this was a pre-antibiotic era. So when Gillies was operating on a badly burned sailor called William Vicarage, he lifted a skin flap as normal, but then he did something unprecedented. He rolled the skin into a cylinder and stitched it together, making what’s called a tubed pedicle. This meant the underside wasn’t exposed to the air, and it was less likely to get infected. The free end of the flap could then be attached to the site of injury, and once a blood supply formed the original connection could be cut.

What was Gillies’ bedside manner like?

He was a prankster, and his sense of humour served him and his patients well in the midst of all this horror during the war. I’ll give you an example. At the Queen’s Hospital, there were all kinds of rules about what the soldiers could and couldn’t do; they couldn’t drink, they couldn’t gamble. But Gillies would dress up in this persona whom he called Dr Scroggy, and he would go onto the wards with champagne and gamble with the guys.

On the podcast | Lindsey Fitzharris chronicles the innovations of plastic surgeon Harold Gillies, who worked tirelessly to reconstruct the faces of WW1 soldiers

You’ve talked a lot so far about Gillies’ successes, but what about his failures?

There were, of course, things that didn’t work. For instance, there was a pilot named Lumley who crashed his plane on graduation day and was severely burned. It took him around a year to get into Gillies’ care, and in that time he’d become addicted to morphine and was in really bad shape. Gillies came up with an operative plan and wanted to wait until he had regained some strength, but Lumley begged him to do the surgeries sooner. Gillies did put him on the operating table earlier than planned, and as a result Lumley ended up dying.

I remember in the casebook Gillies said something like: “One could have only hoped for a happier ending for such a warrior.” But Lumley’s fate did teach Gillies some crucial lessons: you can’t always do the operation in one big move, sometimes you have to build the face piecemeal; and what works for one patient doesn’t necessarily work for another patient. These ideas were crucial to Gillies forming his own principles of plastic surgery.

How were the soldiers treated by society after their procedures were finished?

I’ll share the story of a man named Private Walter Ashworth, who was injured on the first day of the battle of the Somme. When he was injured, he fell forward and lay on the battlefield for three days. I mean, there’s nothing more harrowing than losing your jaw, being unable to scream and having to lie on a battlefield for three days. Eventually, he found his way to Gillies and as with Corporal X, he learnt that broken faces often led to broken hearts, as his fiancée ended their engagement. His story has a bit of a happier ending, though, because his fiancée’s friend got wind of this and she started writing letters to him. Eventually she visited him at the hospital, and they fell in love and ended up getting married.

But when Ashworth was discharged, although Gillies had reconstructed his face, not everybody was able to accept his new appearance. He went back to work as a tailor’s assistant and his boss said that he had to perform menial tasks at the back of the shop, because he didn’t want Ashworth to frighten the customers.

He felt really disheartened and discouraged by this reception after his surgery. And so he ended up quitting the job, and he and his wife relocated to Australia. Many years later, Gillies bumped into him on that side of the world. And Gillies, at this point, had grown as a reconstructive surgeon and he offered to have another go at Ashworth’s face; he said that he felt that he could improve his appearance even further. But Ashworth actually declined the offer. It seems that Ashworth had finally made peace with the face that Gillies had given him so long ago when he felt there was no hope of a normal existence.

What did Gillies do after the war ended?

He continued to operate on a lot of the soldiers, as the reconstructive process went on for many years after the war. He also wanted to develop plastic surgery into a legitimate discipline in its own right, and started to branch out into cosmetic surgery. Interestingly, he introduced his cousin Archibald McIndoe, who a lot of people know through his work with the Guinea Pig Club [a support group created by soldiers who were undergoing surgery for facial injuries or extensive burns in the Second World War], to the strange art of plastic surgery.

How did Gillies’ team and the men they treated shape plastic surgery’s future?

They were absolutely crucial in ushering plastic surgery into the modern era. These men who were operated on are the pillars of what plastic surgery is in the 21st century. And think about how many people’s lives are transformed today through the reconstructive talents of surgeons the world over.

Dr Lindsey Fitzharris is a medical historian, author and TV host. Her books include The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine (Allen Lane, 2017), and she is the writer and host of The Curious Life and Death of… for the Smithsonian Channel.

She is the author of The Facemaker: One Surgeon's Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I (Allen Lane, 2022). Buy it now on Amazon, Waterstones or


This article was first published in the July 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine