Review: Reconstructing Faces – The Art and Wartime Surgery of Gillies, Pickerill, McIndoe and Mowlem

otago068126Reconstructing Faces – The Art and Wartime Surgery of Gillies, Pickerill, McIndoe and Mowlem. Otago University Press, September 2013, 264 pages, ISBN 978 1 877578 39 7,  £48.93 ($NZ60; includes DVD)

The life and times of the distinguished New Zealand facial reconstruction surgeon, Sir Harold Gillies, last received attention in a biography published in 1964.  The need for a new biography was apparent as the centenary year of Gillies’ ground-breaking work at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot in 1916 approaches.  The significance of Gillies’ work originally became apparent to me when researching my history of Aldershot, home of the British Army in the Great War.

Gillies has not been altogether forgotten.  World War One commemoration events stimulated a TV New Zealand documentary on him and last summer the Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank produced a play about Gillies in World War One,  “ Dr Scoggy’s War”, by Howard Brenton. There was also an exhibition at The Royal College of Surgeons of the watercolours by his distinguished colleague Henry Tonks, RA, featuring many of the men who suffered terrible facial injuries treated by Gillies. Tonks was part of a team Gillies assembled around him which included the sculptor Catherine Scott, widow of Robert Falcon Scott. The fact that Gillies was an excellent artist himself was reflected in the talented artists charged with reimagining his patient’s faces he assembled in Aldershot and at Sidcup in Kent in a purpose-built centre.

Professor Meikle has now produced a book which celebrates not only the work of Gillies, who was born in Dunedin, but also three other pioneering facial surgeons with New Zealand connections.  Sir Archibald McIndoe (Gillies’ cousin), also Dunedin- born, Rainsford Mowlem, who studied medicine at the University of Otago Medical School and Henry Pickerill, who was foundation Dean of the University of Otago Dental School.  The four surgeons revolutionised plastic surgery and the treatment of facial trauma, working on soldiers, fighter pilots and civilians disfigured by bombs, shrapnel and burns. They were supported by a huge surgical support team that included surgeons, dentists, anaesthetists, artists and photographers, nurses and orderlies.

Murray C. Meikle is Emeritus Professor of Orthodontics, King’s College London Dental Institute at Guy’s King’s College and St Thomas’ Hospitals (GKT), University of London and a former Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery, Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh. Since retiring in 2003 he has been Professor of Orthodontics at the University of Otago and a Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore.  Meikles’s book is a wonderful blend of biography and the anatomical detail of the work involved in the repair of hundreds of man’s faces he as a qualified surgeon is able to supply.

This beautiful book is fully illustrated with photos, drawings and case notes by the surgeons and war artists at the military hospitals at Boulogne-sur-Mer, Aldershot and Sidcup in the First World War, and civilian hospitals at East Grinstead, Basingstoke and Hill End in the Second World War.  The book also contains a great selection of photos which, coming from New Zealand, includes a number of rugby teams McIndoe played in.  It also includes a DVD of Rainsford Mowlem performing a variety of plastic operations in 1945.

The remarkable thing is Reconstructing Faces seems to have appeared almost without any notice or anyone in the UK noticing. I only discovered the existence of Murray Meikles’s book when researching the Gillies-inspired facial surgery work at a Rooksdown Hospital near Basingstoke involving Gillies in the Second World War. Only one copy existed in Hampshire which I obtained through a special request.

In a wonderful way Gillies’ legacy was passed to his cousin, Sir Archibald McIndoe, who worked with World War Two pilots in the famous Guinea Pig Club at East Grinstead. From the time at the beginning of 1916 when Gillies arrived at the Cambridge Hospital in Aldershot and was rather grudgingly given a ward for what came to be known as “plastic surgery” to the modern science of facial repair too little is known of the invaluable contribution of New Zealand doctors and dentists to the way faces might be reconstructed in wartime. The mystery is how this important book slipped out without the recognition it deserved.

Murray Rowlands