World War I was one of the most destructive and violent wars the world has ever known. At least 2 million people died in the war, and the number of people injured was much higher than that.
While many soldiered returned home in one piece, there are many others who returned home injured and badly disfigured. In the U.K., the work of one man, Dr. Harold Gillies, would let many of them live a normal life again.
Harold Gillies was a doctor and soldier during the first World War, serving in France. During his time there he witnessed first hand the efforts of a French-American dentist to repair the teeth of soldiers who had been injured by bullets.
Seeing this inspired Gillies, and made him see the importance of facial repair for injured soldiers. In 1917 he returned to England where he persuaded members of the military to open a facial injury ward at Cambridge Military Hospital.
The small facial injury ward quickly proved to be a success, and a new hospital was opened exclusively for facial repairs in June, 1917.
The Queen’s Hospital could accommodate over 1,000 patients with facial injuries, and they were quickly at capacity.
Over the following years Gillies and his colleagues developed the practice of modern day plastic surgery. They performed over 11,000 surgeries on about 5,000 soldiers who were disfigured during the war.
Many consider Gillies to be the father of plastic surgery. Many of the techniques he and his team developed were used for many years. In 1930 he was knighted for his work.
During World War II he worked with the British government to establish plastic surgery units across the country.
Following the end of the second World War Gillies ran a private practice and trained many doctors in the techniques of plastic surgery.
Gillies even performed the world’s first sex reassignment surgery in 1946. Below is a picture of Roberta Cowell, the first person to undergo male to female sex reassignment surgery.
You might be forgiven for looking at these pictures and thing they’re a bit gruesome. But it was because of the work of Dr. Gillies that these people were able to live a semi-normal life again. What he was able to do was a miracle at the time (and is still impressive today).
These soldiers gave almost everything for their country during the war. Dr. Gillies gave them, and the millions who have since benefited from the techniques he developed, their lives back.