Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon's Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I

By Lindsey Firzharris
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2022
Timothy Daniel, Reviewer

A Patient Receives a Cosmetic Face Plate

Lindsey Fitzharris’s book The Facemaker is one that all students of the Great War will find both absorbing and beautifully written. The book is rich in exploring a subject long ignored and little understood, the subject of facial injuries suffered by the men who fought in the war.

As the author recounts, facial wounds have always been part of combat as well as the most dreaded type of wound, so much so that soldiers would often do a mercy killing of their comrades, assuming they would not wish to live with such an injury.

When the war began reconstructive surgery was a little understood field of medicine. Doctors had little idea how to rebuild a nose or a jaw that had been shot away in combat.

Before and After
 Sgt Sidney Beldam Was Wounded During
the Battle of Passchendaele

Into this void came a true medical hero, Dr. Harold Gilles, a Cambridge-educated doctor. The Facemaker is able to show what a true medical hero Dr. Gilles was. He saw the horrible irony of a soldier who had lost an arm or leg in battle being considered a hero. However, a facial injury resulted in a soldier being cruelly shunned by even their families. The victims of facial injuries were even assigned blue benches in public parks as a way of warning people to keep their distance from an area the facially injured were seated.

Through trial and error Dr. Gilles developed procedures, richly detailed in layperson’s language, of how he learned to rebuild faces. The author recounts numerous cases of his successes but does not shy away from his failures and mistakes. Chapter Eleven recounts his painful learning process and is rightly entitled “Heroic Failures.” Dr. Gilles may have agonized over those failures, but he also learned from them.

This book is a must read for World War One students. True, some of the book can be heartbreaking to read, as the author, with great sensitivity, recounts numerous case histories of the soldiers that Dr. Gilles cared for. The book is a story of compassionate medical providers who used their dedication, skill, and outright genius to rebuild faces. The narrative is so absorbing that the reader is swept up in the story of Dr. Gilles and the men he literally saved. This intrepid doctor is befittingly remembered as I think he would want to be, The Facemaker.

Timothy Daniel

1 comment:

  1. Great review. Will purchase the book. Thank you, Tim Daniel