The Invictus Games and the ‘father of plastic surgery’ Harold Gillies

Posted: 11/05/2016


The opening of the second Invictus Games is a reminder of the sacrifice made by members of the armed forces who have suffered devastating and life-changing injuries. In most cases, the field of aesthetic surgery has played a major part in helping them to live as normal a life as possible.

Many people will not have heard the name Harold Gillies but he is considered by many to be the ‘father of plastic surgery’. Born in New Zealand in June 1882, 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 its 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. 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 presented countless risks. One of the most famous cases was that of Lieutenant William Spreckley. To fashion him a new nose, Gillies carried out extensive research 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.

Gillies was determined not only to restore function to the facial features of his patients but also to try to achieve an aesthetic result as well. This desire pushed Gillies on to further experimentation even though, without antibiotics, he was taking a big risk. In one case, a pilot named Henry Lumley was admitted to Sidcup with horrific facial burns. To repair them, Gillies attempted to take a large face-shaped flap from his chest. The massive graft soon became infected and, unable to bear the trauma of surgery, Lumley died of heart failure.

This taught Gillies that plastic surgery had to be carried out in small stages rather than one big operation and it is a lesson that still informs the field today.

Gillies was also a pioneer of sex reassignment surgery. In 1946, he and a colleague carried out one of the first sex reassignment surgeries from female to male on Michael Dillon. In 1951, he and colleagues carried out one of the first modern sex reassignment surgery from male to female using a flap technique on Roberta Cowell which became the standard for 40 years.

The field of plastic and aesthetic surgery owes much to Harold Gillies. He was a pioneer of techniques and principles still widely followed today, many of which he began formulating over 100 years ago.


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