Facial wounds, surgery and the First World War

By Dr Andrew Bamji

During my training to be a doctor, I ended up specialising in the treatment of arthritis, and I hardly expected to write a book about plastic surgery in the First World War. But when I started working at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup, in south east London, I soon discovered that the hospital was very proud of its history as the place where wounded soldiers were sent for facial reconstruction. My interest deepened following the serendipitous discovery of a group of case files, complete with photographs, paintings and details of operations. These sources were a unique survival of wartime medical records, and I started to explore them and to develop the hospital’s collection of related material, including medical textbooks and the diaries of soldiers and nurses.

The plastic theatre at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup. Harold Gillies is seated on the right; Rubens Wade, his first anaesthetist, is standing (Author’s collection)

As I began to research the remarkable technical advances in surgery which were pioneered at Sidcup, I started to understand how they resulted from the centralisation of facial surgery on one site.

This centralisation was brought about by the radical approach of the lead surgeon, Harold Gillies, who cast aside the professional hierarchies of the time, and encouraged surgeons, dentists, technicians and illustrators to collaborate with each other.

Rubens Wade inducing anaesthesia at Sidcup (Author’s collection)

My book, Faces from the Front, explains how this approach led to much better outcomes for patients in Britain than those who were treated in France and Germany, where surgeons worked independently at several different hospitals. These benefits included psychological wellbeing as well as appearance and function. At Sidcup, even the patient was part of the team, and there was a major focus on rehabilitation.

My book highlights how plastic surgery was firmly established during the First World War, and an important precursor to Archibald McIndoe’s work at East Grinstead during the Second World War.

Display panel for an American tour undertaken by Gillies after the war (Author’s collection)

I developed a website with details of the hospital’s archive, and lectured widely on surgical successes and problems. Relatives of Sidcup’s patients learned what I was doing, and started to get in touch. The stories I heard led me to conclude that the experience of war, rather than injury, caused the psychological problems which affected many soldiers for the rest of their lives. Stanley Cohen, for example, was a tank officer who was badly burned in August 1918. His writings show how he was badly affected by the experience of running over a German machine gun position in his tank and ordering the shooting of surrendering enemy soldiers, rather than by his disfigurement. Many patients went on to lead happy and fulfilled lives after the war.

I qualified in medicine from the Middlesex Hospital, London in 1973 and became a rheumatologist. I was President of the British Society for Rheumatology in 2006-8 and I am Gillies Archivist to the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons. I have continued to research, write and lecture following my retirement, to audiences in the UK, US, France, and New Zealand. Television appearances include contributions to Jeremy Paxman’s mini-series on the First World War, ‘Timewatch’ with Michael Palin, and ‘The South Bank Show’ with Pat Barker.

Faces from the Front. Harold Gillies, the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup and the Origins of Modern Plastic Surgery is available to pre-order from Helion & Company Ltd here.

Dr Bamji is speaking at the Rye Arts Festival on September 26th, and at the National Archives, Kew, on the following day.


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2 Responses to Facial wounds, surgery and the First World War

  1. Fascinating!

    You are the one to tell this story.

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