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Reconstructive and maxillofacial surgery

Plastic surgery cases at the King George Military Hospital, London, 1916-1918.

Plastic surgery cases at the King George Military Hospital, London, 1916-1918.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

It is often said that ‘the eyes are the windows of the soul’. Much can be learned about us from the expression on our faces, not just our eyes. Unfortunately some soldiers were wounded in the face and the shocked reaction of others discouraged them from appearing in public. In Sidcup, Kent, the site of the first specialist centre for plastic surgery during the First World War, there were benches painted blue to warn local residents that men sitting on them might have a frightening appearance.

Before the First World War there was little concern with what an injured soldier’s face looked like. It was sufficient that the soldier was alive. But these people normally felt they had to go around with their faces covered. However, surgeons such as Harold Gillies, who treated two thousand soldiers in the First World War, tried to reconstruct soldiers’ faces so they would not feel they had to hide them.

Maxillofacial surgery was developed originally from dentistry to repair the damaged jaws of wounded soldiers in both world wars. Gillies worked with a dental specialist, Charles Auguste Valadier, on reconstructing faces. Different materials were used, such as metals to reconstruct the jaws and teeth of those wounded in the face. In the Second World War mobile maxillofacial units saved the lives of many soldiers with early surgery. These two separate specialisms combined to ensure that those with facial injuries did not feel they had to hide behind masks.


R Battle, ‘Plastic surgery in the two World Wars and in the years between’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 71 (November 1978), pp 844-848

B J S Grogono, ‘Changing the hideous face of war’, British Medical Journal, 303/21-28 (December 1991), pp 1586-1588