During World War I, shrapnel was the cause of countless gruesome and in many cases, deadly injuries. With the level of medical knowledge at the time, doctors were able to save soldiers’ lives and keep them alive, but the injuries left them in terrible physical condition. This was where Harold Gillies came in. The British army asked Gillies, who studied medicine at Cambridge, to attempt to fix the injuries of the soldiers. After seeing some of the facial injuries some of the soldiers had, Gillies talked the army into setting up a unit for plastic surgery, which was still in its very primitive stage at the time. Because of this primitive stage many of the procedures that were performed were experimental and extremely dangerous due to the lack of antibiotics at the time.
One of Harold Gillie’s major successes with facial reconstruction was the face of Lieutenant William Spreckley, whose picture you can see below this paragraph. Spreckley had his nose blown off during the war, and Gillies experimented with a procedure known as the “forehead flap” to fix it. He had to remove a piece of rib cartilage from the patient and attach it to the patient’s forehead. After the cartilage has had time to heal in the forehead, it was then swung down into position where the excess tissue could be removed after another healing period. In all, the surgery took three years to complete but as can be seen in the picture below it was incredibly effective as far as facial reconstruction went at the time.
Unfortunately, there were many failures as well to go along with Gillie’s successes. In one case, Gillie’s attempted to take a face-shaped flap from a patient’s chest in order to repair burns to his face. Due to the lack of antibiotics during that time period, the patient became so infected that he died of heart failure. Despite the many surgical advances that Gillie made, other soldiers were also not able to overcome the psychological effects of their injuries and would not go out in public. Even though he was not able to successfully repair everybody’s injuries, Gillie’s discoveries in the field of facial reconstruction have led to numerous other advancements and allowed plastic surgery to become what it is today.
– Jonathan Samuelsen