Blog

10/07/2014

By Natalie Walters

In the second of our blog series commemorating World War I, archivist Natalie Walters gives a very personal response to two photograph albums of injured soldiers. The albums are part of the digitised Royal Army Medical Corps archive.

Reactions to archival material can sometimes be visceral and emotional rather than intellectual. This is never more so than when we are presented with images which bring home the uncomfortable reality of war.

Detail from Wellcome Images no. L0044759, RAMC/760, album of photographs of plastic surgery cases at the King George Military Hospital.

Photograph from album in RAMC/760. Wellcome Images no. L0044759.

The remarkable images found in RAMC/760, two photograph albums documenting plastic surgery treatment of wounded soldiers at the King George Military Hospital in London, taken between 1915 and 1918, do just that. Although not as well-known as material in the Gillies Archives from Queen Mary’s Hospital, Sidcup which date from the same period, or the Second World War archives of Sir Archibald McIndoe’s Guinea Pig Club, these two albums are equally remarkable.

Showing images of men before, during, and after their treatment, these albums are a testament to the medical advances made out of necessity in times of war. Whilst plastic surgery has been known in some form for well over 2000 years, the mass casualties of World War I provided new challenges. In addition to the amount of injuries sustained, advances in modern medicine meant that many injuries which would previously have been fatal were now survivable.

Being presented with photographs of men with half of their faces blown away, with nose missing or teeth and tongue visible through cheek, can provoke shock and revulsion, but this is not the only reaction. My personal response to these images has always been one of wonder. I have always been amazed at the skill of the surgeons, and the bravery of their patients in agreeing to this pioneering treatment. To me, these photographs are beautiful.

With this in mind, I was shocked to discover recently whilst reading Richard Barnett’s excellent blog post on the Sick Rose, that images of men from the Gillies archive were used as the basis for villains in the video game BioShock. This demonstrates that myths around physical appearance being related to how “good” or “bad” a person is are still alive and well, and underlines how courageous these men were to allow themselves to be photographed with extensive injuries, and to undergo treatments that frequently made them look worse before they looked better.

Burns of face and hands. RAMC/760, album of photographs of plastic surgery cases at the King George Military Hospital

Sgt Marsden, burns of face and hands. Wellcome Library ref no. RAMC/760

That nearly 100 years later comparable images are used to frighten people in a computer game, gives us a glimpse into what life must have been like for people who sustained such disfiguring injuries. In her article ‘Medical archives and digital culture’ Suzannah Biernoff writes about the taboo of disfigured soldiers during and after the War, isolated in specialist hospitals or hidden behind masks. “Patients refused to see their families and fiancées; children reportedly fled at the sight of their fathers; nurses and orderlies struggled to look their patients in the face.” She goes on to say that “facial mutilation was feared as a fate worse than death” in a culture that revered the heroic sacrifice of the soldier, but not its bloody reality.

Detail from Wellcome Images no. L0044781, RAMC/760, album of photographs of plastic surgery cases at the King George Military Hospital.

Photograph from album in RAMC/760. Wellcome Images no. L0044781.

There is one particular image, versions of which appear several times throughout these photograph albums, and which date them far more than anything else. These are photographs of rehabilitated soldiers smoking (in a hospital no less!). It is evident that these images were included as proof of the extent to which the subjects had recovered from their injuries and were able to live normal lives. These photographs provide an interesting contrast to other archival material held by the Wellcome Library, such as the collections of the anti-smoking charity ASH (SA/ASH), and the epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll (PP/DOL), who discovered the link between smoking and lung cancer.

The skill of the surgeons who undertook these pioneering operations is immediately evident from the photographs. Many of the post-treatment images show men you might pass on the street without giving a second glance. Only on closer inspection might you notice the tell-tale scars…

Nearly one hundred years later you couldn’t expect much better results from similar treatment.

For the less squeamish, both Volume 1 and Volume 2 can be viewed online in their entirety in the digital player.

Author: Natalie Walter is an archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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