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Medical Historian Lindsey Fitzharris and new book, The Facemaker

July 13, 2022

“The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon's Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I”  is an unlikely story of modern plastic surgery on the battlefields of WWI, written by Lindsey Fitzharris. Fitzharris has a Ph.D. in the History of Science and Medicine from Oxford University, and her debut book, The Butchering Art (a no-holds-barred journey into the Victorian era operating room), won the PEN/E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science.

With The Facemaker, a New York Times Bestseller, she introduces us to long-overlooked medical pioneer Harold Gillies, the “Father of Modern Plastic Surgery" (incidentally, Gillies also performed the first phalloplasty on a transgender man, Michael Dillon, in 1945). After experiencing “the brutal hothouse of frontline surgery” firsthand, Gillies devoted himself to rebuilding the burned and broken faces of wounded soldiers, establishing one of the first hospitals dedicated entirely to facial reconstruction. Gillies was an audacious surgical innovator – he invented the “tubed pedicle” to increase the success rate of skin grafts, and developed the epithelial outlay, a method that revolutionized the rebuilding of eyelids. Lindsey draws a direct line from his groundbreaking work to the advances in face transplant surgery happening today. 

Dr. Fitzharris traces the birth of plastic surgery back not only to the physical realities of WWI facial wounds, but also to their psychological repercussions. This was a time when, though losing a limb made you a “hero,” losing a face made you a "monster,” and the soldiers in Gillies’s care faced severe stigmatization upon their return to civilian life – many were forced to sit on specifically designated blue benches so that the public knew not to look at them. Plastic surgery emerged to shield injured soldiers from a society that was largely intolerant of facial differences.

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