Needle and thread, steel wire and bandages, fabric and skin.
Just as the artist Paddy Hartley uses sewing and appliqué to reconstruct a soldier’s history, the surgeon Sir Harold Gillies reconstructed the faces of soldiers who had suffered horrific facial injuries during the First World War.
The British soldier William Spreckley was among the tens of thousands of wounded servicemen who were given new faces by the surgeon and his colleagues.
Some of the methods used by Gillies were hugely important for the development of plastic surgery.
Other people’s misfortunes were my bread and butter for the 40 years that I spent treating people who’d suffered injuries to their faces.
Generally only to their faces.
You are listening to Per Skjelbred, retired head of the Department of Maxillofacial and Oral Surgery at Ullevål University Hospital in Oslo.
I first started in this line of work as a locum at Ullevål in 1977, when our equipment was basically the same as what was used during the First World War.
There was steel wire, and there were some bone fragments from the top of the pelvis. And when I look at the techniques that Gillies used in the First World War, I see that many of these same techniques are still being used today.
How did Gillies treat such badly wounded young soldiers? How did he create new noses, for example?
By taking skin from the forehead. And that’s not a new technique. It was described for the first time in India, in the year 600 B.C.
Many of these soldiers with severe facial injuries became recluses after the First World War. You see, if you lose your face, then you can no longer recognize yourself. You lose all self-confidence and your sense of identity and just want to hide.
And that’s a problem, of course.