ARC Review: The Facemaker: One Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I by Lindsey Fitzharris

Cover for The Facemaker by Lindsey Fitzharris

Title: The Facemaker: One Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I

Author: Lindsey Fitzharris

Pages: 338

Release Date: June 7, 2022

5 out of 5 stars
5 stars – I loved it!

The Facemaker tells the story of pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Delf Gillies, who dedicated his life to reconstructing the faces of injured soldiers in his care during World War I. After reading The Butchering Art, Fizharris’ first book, I knew that I would want to read any future books that she wrote. This book surpassed my expectations and sucked me in from the very first page. 

“[T]he science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying.”

quote from a battlefield nurse

Gilles had a remarkable dedication to his work. From the very beginning of the war he realized how facial wounds were being poorly treated and how it affected the soldiers. He was unwavering in his dedication to help these men and went about setting up a specific hospital for facial injuries and restoration. This eventually led to the establishment of the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup that became the center of facial reconstruction during the war. 

“These soldiers’ lives were often left as shattered as their faces. Robbed of their very identities, such men came to symbolize the worst of a new, mechanized form of war.”

Gillies not only realized the importance of reconstruction, but he also knew that it would take a multidisciplinary team for the work to be successful. He employed surgeons, physicians, dentists, radiologists, artists, sculptors, mask-makers, and photographers who all worked together to assist in the reconstruction process. This man was not only extremely creative with his blade, he also understood the importance of recording their work, hence the artists and photographers. Also, some of this art and photographs still survive today. 

Learning about Gillies was fascinating, not only for his achievements but for the man himself. Gillies really was a compassionate and hardworking man. He went out of his way to make these men feel human, even when they only saw themselves as monsters. In the epilogue there are some quotes from the men he worked on and it really touched me to see how his positive outlook really impacted their happiness and recovery. 

This book also briefly discussed the sculptors Francis Derwent Wood and Anna Coleman Ladd who created prosthetic masks for soldiers. I highly suggest looking up photos of Ladd and Wood’s masks because they are beautiful. You can really see the hard work these two put into making realistic masks for these men. This book also discussed brief achievements in anesthesia and blood transfusions, which was fascinating because I didn’t realize how much the war revolutionized the healthcare field. 

“Men [who] save life never get the same appreciation and reward as those whose business it is to destroy it.”

quote from Sir William Arbuthnot Lane

Gillies had a very successful career after the war: In 1930 was knighted for his services during WWI, in 1949 he performed the first successful phalloplasty on a trans man, in 1946 he became the first elected president of the British Association of Plastic Surgeons, and he published two books about plastic surgery. Gillies also was pressed into service again during WWII. Harold Gillies lived a remarkable life that pushed the boundaries of surgery and changed the lives of so many people. 

Overall, this was an absolutely fascinating book about a fascinating man. This was so well written that at times I almost forgot I was reading a nonfiction book. I highly recommend this book (or her other book) if you are interested in medical history. 

Also, I love that she acknowledged the work of the archivist who discovered and preserved the clinical records from WWI while working at Queen’s Hospital. As an archivist myself, I love seeing authors acknowledge the hard work we do. 

*ARC provided by Netgalley for an honest review.*

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