Review of “Faces from the Front”

Faces from the Front
Harold Gillies, the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, and the origins of modern plastic surgery
by Andrew Bamji
published by Helion & Company, October 2017
Hardback ISBN 978 1 911512 66 0
202 pages plus bibliography and index. Illustrated.
Cover price not stated. Publishers flyer says £29.95.
Reviewed by Chris Baker

This is a book that at one makes the reader despair and wonder. Despair that man can produce such violence and with such devastating resultant damage to fellow man; wonder at the dedication and technical skill of the medical experts who tackled that damage, and of the fortitude and courage of the wounded. It is a book that I found wholly inspiring.

The subject is the development of medical techniques of  facial reconstruction. Just how appalling the men’s injuries were, and how effective were those techniques, can be judged by the many case study photographs included in the book, all of named individuals.

It is said that some 16% of all wounds during the Great War were to the face, head or neck, despite the adoption of steel helmets that no doubt kept this figure below what it might otherwise have been. Caused by flying metal fragments, shards, bullets or shrapnel, or by stones, flint or objects thrown up by explosion, many such wounds could be fatal. For those who survived they could also produce life-long effects. Such effects were not just physical in nature, but mental scars that it is easy to imagine would affect self-worth, relationships with others and the way the world looked upon the victim. One cannot fail to be moved by the images depicted within the book.

“Faces from the Front” begins with a review of the nature of the Great War and its ability to produce such injuries, and goes on to explain the British (and to some extent French) medical organisation. The core of it, though, revolves around New Zealand born surgeon Harold Gillies, who had first arrived in France for work with the Red Cross in January 1915. Supported by the senior hierarchy of the Royal Army Medical Corps he became the driving force, first of the establishment of a specialist unit at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot and, from August 1917, the dedicated facility at Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup. Staffed by skilled professionals from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, Sidcup opened with a 320-bed unit. The author takes us through the development of the hospital and the multidisciplinary techniques it began to develop there. They laid a solid foundation for the plastic surgery and other approaches to reconstruction that exist today.

The author certainly knows his subject: not least as he worked as a consultant physician at Queen’s Hospital between 1982 and 2011.

Produced to the high standard that we have come to expect from Helion, on good quality, glossy paper with nice binding and a colour dust jacket.


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