The battlefield origins of cosmetic surgery Image

The battlefield origins of cosmetic surgery

Posted: 05/06/2014

As the popularity of cosmetic surgery keeps on rising and the range of available procedures extends to include ‘mommy makeovers’, labiaplasty and Loub jobs,  cosmetic law specialist, Penningtons Manches,  looks back at the development of cosmetic surgery from its early beginnings on the first world war battlefields.

It is believed that the first modern cosmetic procedure was performed by Sir Harold Gillies in 1917. A young soldier injured at the Battle of Jutland lost both eyelids and suffered severe facial injuries. He was admitted to the Queen Mat’s Hospital in Sidcup where Sir Harold performed the first transfer of skin from an undamaged part of the body to cover the damage to the soldier’s face.

During World War I, Gillies performed over 11,000 operations on more than 5,000 men. The majority of these procedures were for facial injuries from gunshot wounds. Gillies set up a private practice between the wars and began developing his techniques and promoting them worldwide. In 1930, Gillies was knighted. In World War II as consultant to the Ministry of Health, the RAF and the Admiralty, he set up and organised plastic surgery units throughout the country. Gillies treated many patients with horrific burns, many of them survivors of tank and aircraft crews.

Gillies’ pioneering work continued following the World War II and in 1946 he performed the first sex reassignment surgery from male to female.

In 1957 Gillies published his 'The Principles and Art of Plastic Surgery', which is still a major work on this subject. Debra Chatfield, family historian at, commented, “The medical world owes a great deal to Dr Gillies, as do those who were treated by him in the early twentieth century and anyone who has ever received plastic surgery treatment since then. Without his pioneering developments in this field, plastic surgery might not be as advanced as it is today.”

Emily Palmer, clinical negligence associate at Penningtons Manches, commented: “It is sometimes easy to forget that cosmetic surgery is not just an aesthetic option for those who wish to change their appearance. Cosmetic surgery saves lives and gives lives back to those who have suffered severe injury.

“We not only see those cases where complications have occurred from aesthetic surgeries but we also deal with those involving breast reconstruction following cancer, skin grafts on burn victims and cases involving severe scarring. The techniques developed by pioneers like Harold Gillies are invaluable in the innovation we see in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery today.”

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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 419867.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP