Prosthetic mask makers of World War I

This month's Smithosnian Magazine has a fascinating article about the physicians and artists who sculpted prosthetic faces for soldiers mangled in World War I. The London General Hospital's Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department, aka the "Tin Noses Shop," was founded by Francis Derwent Wood, a sculptor who developed a technique to make lightweight metal masks that were more durable than rubber prosthetics previously used. Later, artist Anna Coleman Ladd, inspired by Wood, opened another facility in Paris, the Studio for Portrait Masks. The article also includes a vintage film clip of Ladd fitting soldiers for new faces. From The Smithsonian:

 Images Articles 2007 Feb Pop Mask Pair
The mask itself would be fashioned of galvanized copper one thirty-second of an inch thick–or as a lady visitor to Ladd's studio remarked, "the thinness of a visiting card." Depending upon whether it covered the entire face, or as was often the case, only the upper or lower half, the mask weighed between four and nine ounces and was generally held on by spectacles. The greatest artistic challenge lay in painting the metallic surface the color of skin. After experiments with oil paint, which chipped, Ladd began using a hard enamel that was washable and had a dull, flesh-like finish. She painted the mask while the man himself was wearing it, so as to match as closely as possible his own coloring. "Skin hues, which look bright on a dull day, show pallid and gray in bright sunshine, and somehow an average has to be struck," wrote Grace Harper, the Chief of the Bureau for the Reeducation of Mutilés, as the disfigured French soldiers were called. The artist has to pitch her tone for both bright and cloudy weather, and has to imitate the bluish tinge of shaven cheeks." Details such as eyebrows, eyelashes and mustaches were made from real hair, or, in Wood's studio, from slivered tinfoil, in the manner of ancient Greek statues…

Today, the only images of these men in their masks come from black-and-white photographs which, with their forgiving lack of color and movement, make it impossible to judge the masks's true effect. Static, set for all time in a single expression modeled on what was often a single prewar photograph, the masks were at once lifelike and lifeless: (World War I facial reconstruction pioneer pioneer Sir Harold) Gillies reports how the children of one mask-wearing veteran fled in terror at the sight of their father's expressionless face. Nor were the masks able to restore lost functions of the face, such as the ability to chew or swallow. The voices of the disfigured men who wore the masks are for the most part known only from meager correspondence with Ladd, but as she herself recorded, "The letters of gratitude from the soldiers and their families hurt, they are so grateful." "Thanks to you, I will have a home," one soldier had written her. "…The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do."


Previously on BB:
• More mil plastic surgery history: Gaston Julia, mathematician

• Project Facade: Post WWI surgical facial reconstruction Link