Surgical leeches and facial reconstruction

The world’s first plastic surgery

Willie Vicarage

Willie Vicarage, who was suffering from WWI facial wounds that he sustained in the Battle of Jutland in 1916, was one of the first men to receive facial reconstruction using plastic surgery.

Antibiotics had not yet been invented, meaning it was very hard to graft tissue from one part of the body to another because infection often developed. But while treating Vicarage, Dr. Harold Gillies invented the “tubed pedicle.” This used a flap of skin from the chest or forehead and “swung” it into place over the face.

The flap remained attached but was stitched into a tube. This kept the original blood supply intact and dramatically reduced the infection rate.

Harold Gillies was the man the British Army tasked with fixing these grisly wounds. Born in New Zealand, he studied medicine at Cambridge before joining the British Army Medical Corps at the outset of World War One.

Gillies was shocked by the injuries he saw in the field, and requested that the army set up their own plastic surgery unit.

Soon after, a specifically-designed hospital was opened in Sidcup. It treated 2,000 patients after the Battle of the Somme alone. Here Gillies would do some of his finest work.

Previously viewed with suspicion, facial reconstruction became an integral part of the post-war healing process. However, in a world before antibiotics, going under the knife for an experimental form of surgery posed as many risks as the trenches themselves.

Early success

William Spreckley

Lieutenant William Spreckley was one of Harold Gillies’ biggest successes. To fashion him a new nose, Gillies hit the books and came across an old Indian idea known as the ‘forehead flap’. He took a section of rib cartilage and implanted it in Spreckley’s forehead. It stayed there for six months before it could be swung down and used to construct the nose. From start to finish, the process took over three years. Spreckley was admitted to hospital in January 1917 at the age of 33 and discharged in October 1920.


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