How Sculptors Mended the Scars of World War I Through The Novel Art of Face Transplants
The Great War (1914 - 1918) claimed the lives of 8 million fighting men and wounded 21 million more. “The iconic trenches of World War I were themselves an ‘unforeseen enemy,’ though. The unceasing machine-gun fire led to a fate that was, at the time, almost as bad as death,” writes Olga Khazan. “Western front soldiers who popped their heads above their trenches would come back down with a nose, jaw, or even an entire face missing.”
Located within the 3rd London General Hospital, "Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department,” jokingly referred to as "The Tin Noses Shop," was established in the spring of 1916, to help soldiers too disfigured to qualify for before-and-after documentation. "My work begins where the work of the surgeon is completed," stated Francis Derwent Wood (1871 - 1926), the founder of the revolutionary program.
Born in England's Lake District, Wood received his education abroad, studying in Switzerland and Germany, as well as his native country. Training at various art institutes, he cultivated his childhood interest in and talent for sculpture. By the time of the Great War, Wood was too old for active duty, so at the age of 44, he had enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was soon devising sophisticated splints, facial masks, and other forms of early prosthetics.
At the time the Great War started, plastic surgery was still a fairly underdeveloped art. Aside from being crudely practiced, surgeons did not pay real attention to aesthetics as they do today. But the devastating impact of combat was so severe, it overwhelmed all conventional strategies for dealing with trauma to the body and the mind, and caused medical service providers to reevaluate their approach to treating disfigurement and deformities from the ground up.
During the war, medical service personnel consisted of people from all walks of life. Volunteers from every field would offer their services as well as their skills to help with the war effort in any way they could, but when maimed soldiers returned from the Western Front, it was the work of sculptors that ultimately allowed them to "be able to appear in public unnoticed" by re-creating their countenances.
"I endeavour by means of the skill I happen to possess as a sculptor to make a man's face as near as possible to what it looked like before he was wounded," wrote Wood. "My cases are generally extreme cases that plastic surgery has, perforce, had to abandon; but, as in plastic surgery, the psychological effect is the same. The patient acquires his old self-respect, self assurance, self-reliance,...takes once more to a pride in his personal appearance."
Wood packed “facial wounds with cotton wool, creating a plaster mask that fit the soldier’s skin” and then built a clay model of a healed face. He “took a cast of the clay model and, using an electrotyping process, deposited on it a thin layer of silver.” This resulted in “a lightweight and well-fitting metal mask that, when skillfully painted and attached with a ribbon or spectacles earpieces, hid the ugly wounds of battle and offered a more presentable face.”
Toward the end of 1917, Wood's groundbreaking work was brought to the attention of a Boston-based American sculptor Anna Coleman Watts. Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, much like Wood, Watts was educated abroad, in Paris and Rome, where she began her sculptural studies. In 1905, she married Maynard Ladd, a Boston physician who had been appointed to direct the Children's Bureau of the American Red Cross in Toul and serve as its medical adviser.
After consulting with Wood, who was — at the time — promoted to captain, Ladd opened the Studio for Portrait Masks in Paris, affiliated with the American Red Cross. Her large, mindfully-decorated sunny studio based in the city’s Latin Quarter was filled with flowers, posters, as well as rows of plaster casts of masks in progress. "Mrs. Ladd is a little hard to handle as is so often the case with people of great talent," recalled one of her colleagues.
Though both sculptors did an extraordinary job at helping soldiers regain their sense of self, it was the work of Ladd that excelled in terms of craftsmanship, though a single mask could take up to a month to complete. Using plaster casts of a soldier's face to re-create an identical cheekbone or eye-socket on the opposite side, she crafted a full or partial mask out of copper, which she painted to match the soldier’s skin tone. This was particularly difficult.
“‘Skin hues, which look bright on a dull day, show pallid and gray in bright sunshine, and somehow an average has to be struck,’ wrote Grace Harper, the Chief of the Bureau for the Reeducation of Mutilés, as the disfigured French soldiers were called. ‘The artist has to pitch her tone for both bright and cloudy weather, and has to imitate the bluish tinge of shaven cheeks.’”
Ladd’s skills were in high demand, but even though she eventually, “honed her technique to the point where she could create the casts from images or photos of the men before their disfigurement,” writes Khazan, “of the nearly 3,000 or so French soldiers requiring such masks, Ladd made about 185.” Still, those who benefitted from her services were grateful. “The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do," wrote one of her patients.
Anna Coleman Ladd left Paris after the armistice, in early 1919, and Wood's department had been disbanded that same year. And although almost no record of the men who wore the masks survives, what is clear is that the work of these sculptors elevated a once lacking profession into a true form of pragmatic art. Indeed, their work is now referred to as anaplastology: the art, craft, and science of restoring absent or malformed anatomy through artificial means.