Plastic Reconstruction of the Face (1918)

This 1918 silent film explores the Studio for Portrait Masks, the Paris workshop of American artist Anna Coleman Ladd (1878-1939). Ladd volunteered her skills as a classically trained sculptor to help design and construct detailed facial prosthetics and, in so doing, further advanced what is now known as Anaplastology. Also seen in this film is British sculptor Francis Derwent Wood (1871-1926) who founded the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department at the Third London General Hospital and was a pioneer in the use of metal masks, both lightweight and more durable than the then commonly used rubber masks.

Reference to the use of prosthetics dates back to pre-antiquity, and the first textbook on plastic surgery was published in the sixteenth century by the Italian surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi. Nonetheless, this film captures a particularly noteworthy time for both fields that resulted from the intersection of a number of recent medical advances and the overwhelming need to utilize those advances to aid the more than twenty million soldiers that were wounded during WWI.

While medical advances saved a great number of lives, advances in weaponry and trench warfare increased the number of injuries, particularly to the face and extremities. Not only were soldiers exposed to the elements (e.g., trench foot) but sources note that many failed to understand how dramatically the landscape of warfare had changed. For example, in speaking about the machine gun, Dr Fred Albee noted, “They seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of bullets”. When the limits of plastic surgery were reached, while far from perfect, countless soldiers benefited from rehabilitative services like those shown.

You can read more over at the National Library of Medicine, where the film is housed, in Zoe Bellof's essay "Copper Masks and Faceless Men..."

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