Facial disfigurement in the war

By Judith Phillips

We know that thousands of men suffered horrific injuries during the First World War.  The medical profession as a whole had not previously met with such a huge number of disfigurements and disabilities, and coping stretched their resources and knowledge.  We know that the war prompted advances in several aspects of medical care, often in dreadful conditions in the war zones, but also when men returned to Britain.

Joining us at 2.30 on Saturday 12th May, we have a speaker who will deal with some aspects of this topic.  Eilis Boyle is undertaking research for a PhD at Leeds University. She specialise in how men with facial disfigurements were treated during and after the war.  Not only did men have to deal with the physical side of injury and surgical repair, they also often faced social and economic difficulties.  Even the medical advances in surgical reconstruction and plastic surgery couldn’t restore faces and men were often left with incomplete faces that were unacceptable to the general public.  This often led to social isolation and many men were unable to find work, especially in the difficult times that followed the war.

And not only the men themselves had problems.  For members of their families, it must have been very difficult too.  How did parents, wives, children react?  We are so used to using the face as our main way of recognising someone and, in these cases, not only did the reconstructed face not resemble the original, in many cases it may also have be repulsive.

The Jonathan Yeo exhibition ‘Skin Deep’ will be showing at the museum between 10 March and 17 June.  Yeo explores the processes involved in cosmetic surgery, what it tells us about an individual’s self-image, perceived cultural ideals of beauty and the psychology behind an endless search for perfection.  It will provide a counter-point to Eilis’ talk.  This is a difficult topic to war injuries but that should not mean we avoid it.  It is still very relevant to us today.