Medicine and War — Sir Harold Gillies: the father of plastic surgery

There is no doubt that war brings death and destruction, but it can also be a catalyst for medical advances. This is clearly demonstrated by the Great War and the developments made in plastic surgery. This blog is focused particularly on the work of Harold Gillies, a New Zealander who worked in Britain during the early twentieth century, and who headed pioneering research and practice in the field of plastic surgery.

The use of Maxim’s machine gun and the shrapnel from exploding shells in the Great War led to horrendous injuries and deformities of the soldiers who faced them. Such injuries often left soldiers disfigured and challenged their ability to function, especially when involving the loss of limbs.


Harold Delf Gilles. Credit: Science Museum, London.


Harold Gillies trained as a doctor at Cambridge University and went on to become a surgeon. He served in the Great War and experienced first-hand the terrible injuries suffered by the soldiers that he fought alongside. He understood not only how life-threatening these injuries could be but also the great psychological impact suffered by soldiers who could sometimes no longer recognise themselves in the mirror. Gillies became particularly interested in the surgery performed to repair injuries of the jaw and face, in order to try and reconstruct as much as possible the soldiers’ previous appearance. He paid particular attention not only to functionality, but also to aesthetics.

Gillies set up a hospital in Aldershot in 1915 which later moved to Sidcup in Kent. He treated many soldiers who had fought in the Battle of the Somme – one of the bloodiest battles of the Great War. Gillies is often referred to as the ‘father of plastic surgery’ and he pioneered novel techniques such as the ‘pedicle tube’ which enabled the grafting of healthy skin to areas of the body destroyed by the trauma of battle. Some of Gillies’ work can be seen in a book that he published in 1920 entitled ‘Plastic Surgery of the Face’, shown below:


Wellcome Images CC BY Credit: Science Museum, London


Harold Gillies laid the foundations for modern plastic surgery. His work helped thousands of soldiers who survived the War in living as normal a life as possible. After Gillies’ death, the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery wrote the following which accurately describes his legacy:


The ideas engendered by his fertile brain have spread and are being spread afar, and generations of plastic surgeons will be affected by what he gave forth to the world. His memory may perish but his influence is immortal.



Further Reading

National Army Museum, ‘The Birth of Plastic Surgery.’ Accessed 7 June 2019.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘Gillies, Sir Harold Delf (1882-1960).’ Accessed 7 June 2019.


Lucy Havard