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Sir Harold Gillies

17 June 1882
10 September 1960 (age 78)

Hailed as the father of modern plastic surgery, Harold Gillies’ work during the First World War improved the lives of more than 5,000 injured servicemen and laid the groundwork for the discipline of plastic surgery in future conflicts and beyond.

Originally the main aim of plastic surgery was to restore function after injury. Such practices had been used around the world before the war, but they had not synthesised into one cohesive discipline. Gillies worked dutifully to collate prior knowledge, adding his experience and techniques to establish the discipline as it is seen today.

His motivation came, as a young Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) medical officer, when he saw the horrendous facial injuries suffered by soldiers on the Western Front. The likes of these injuries had never been seen before on such a huge scale. This was largely due to the nature of trench warfare, where soldiers were forced to look out over trench tops, exposing their heads to danger from the new and highly destructive forms of weaponry being used. At the start of the conflict, the practice was simply to ‘stich up and ship on’ injured soldiers. While effective from a medical point of view, after the stitching and healing had taken place, soldiers with facial injuries would be left without function in the affected area, and also often severely disfigured. This drastically affected their ability to reintegrate into civilian life. Maimed members of the public were viewed with horror and left on the fringes of society.

Unsurprisingly, the restoration of ‘normal’ appearances was of utmost importance to these patients, so that they would be accepted by their families and the general public. Before Gillies’ work, the practice of mask-making was used for injured soldiers to cover up their faces. Gillies sought an alternative and used plastic surgery to not only restore function, but also to restore patients’ original looks, or as close enough as possible.

By looking at pictures of servicemen throughout the stages of their treatment and recovery, it is clear that Gillies was capable of succeeding in this aim. This was achieved through the use of old techniques and some of his own creation, such as the waltzing tube pedicle.

Plastic Surgery of the Face is not a new development. Surgeons of all civilised and some uncivilised countries have from time to time evolved methods of repair for various disfigurements…not until…necessitated by the late war…has there been opportunity for anything but disjointed study in this department of surgery

Harold Gillies in his book Plastic Surgery of the Face, 1920.

Medicine during the First World War was not up to modern standards (antibiotics for example had not been discovered yet) and Gillies’ later successes were built on lessons learned from earlier failures, such as in the case of Harold Ralph Lumley. Gillies went on to mentor his cousin, Archibald McIndoe who became an eminent plastic surgeon in his own right in the Second World War.

The field that Gillies founded has continued to evolve while helping countless people regain their confidence after horrendous injury…and whether he foresaw it or not, helped countless celebrities attain that ‘perfect’ look.