A brick building - the Isolation Ward of the US Army General Hospital

Holworthy Hall’s The Man Nobody Knew and Facial Wound Narratives after World War I

In his 1919 novel The Man Nobody Knew, Holworthy Hall introduced readers to Richard Morgan, a fictional American soldier who enlisted in the French Foreign Legion during World War I.[1] Disaffected from his hometown of Syracuse, New York and a broken engagement, Morgan fought in the war to prove his worth to society. Authorities reported Richard Morgan as dead shortly after he arrived in France in 1915, but he had actually suffered a severe facial wound and was recuperating, anonymously, in a French hospital. Despondent about his disfigurement, he found hope after hearing that surgeons could reconstruct his face to appear as it had before the war, as long as Morgan gave them a photograph of himself to guide their reconstruction. Rather than lend a pre-war photo, Morgan gave surgeons a postcard that depicted an attractive image of Jesus Christ. Morgan obtained his new sanctified face and went home to reclaim his lost love.[2] It might be easy to write this story off as silly fiction, but Hall’s Richard Morgan saga reflected the American public’s simultaneous confidence in medicine, and searing unease about the facial reconstruction of wounded soldiers after World War I.

Facial wounds loomed large in the cultural milieu of belligerent societies after the war. Shrapnel, mustard gas, and bullets disfigured hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ faces.[3] There were even specific terms in France and Germany that invoked the traumatic nature of facial wounds: the French called them les gueules cassées (the men with broken faces); the Germans called them Gesichts-Entstellten (twisted face) or Menschen ohne Gesicht (men without faces)[4] Historian Marjorie Gehrhardt has argued that such wounds were both “very personal and extremely public,” and though these men tried to live ordinary lives after 1918, they became embodied reminders of the war’s carnage.[5] When leaders of the belligerent nations came together to sign the Treaty of Versailles, for example, the French delegation sent a group of facially-wounded veterans to serve as “a living protest to the German delegation.”[6]

The US Army struggled to reintegrate facially wounded veterans into postwar society. Over 2,000 American soldiers had facial or jaw wounds, and 600 of those soldiers required extensive surgery in hospitals in the United States.[7] At US Army General Hospital No. 40 in St. Louis, American surgeon Vilray Blair assumed a similar role to his European counterpart, Harold Gillies, who famously operated on facially wounded soldiers at Queens Hospital in England.[8] Under Blair’s direction, the St. Louis hospital kept American patients under a “visual quarantine”; the men lived in a building that was physically separated from the rest of the hospital by a wooden ramp.[9] The isolated patients usually endured eight to ten surgeries over a period of months or sometimes years in order to achieve restoration to a “normal type.”[10] The ramp that separated them, one observer optimistically wrote, was a bridge “not of sighs” but of “joy and light and laughter, for over it men pass, their jaws show away, every tooth gone, noses and cheeks cruelly torn, a sight to make angels weep; and back again they may come in time, restored to a normal type.”[11]

A brick building - the Isolation Ward of the US Army General Hospital
Photograph of the Isolation Ward (Right) separated by a bridge at US Army General Hospital (No. 40, RG 112, Series UD-8, Box 1159, Folder: Historical Data, US National Archives.)

Despite the fact that hundreds of patients went under the knife multiple times, little evidence reflected the patients’ painful and prolonged surgeries. Historian Joe Kember has argued that stories about facially wounded soldiers’ homecoming described miraculous transformations by surgeons rather than the problematic results of state-sponsored violence.[12] For example, after a shell destroyed John Hiatt’s jaw, teeth, and nose, taking away practically “all the man’s features,” he wore “an entirely new face” that was “just as good as the one he had before the war.”[13] The rhetoric about Hiatt’s trauma implied that transformations at the hands of the surgeons erased the physical price Hiatt had paid in service to his country. Such articles conveyed to audiences that surgeons seamlessly remade wounded men as good as new, which is a theme prevalent in the culture of World War I rehabilitation more generally.[14] One writer even argued that surgeons molded “broken humanity back again into the image of its Maker,” implying the godly powers they supposedly wielded.[15]

Originating in the sixteenth century, plastic surgery held the status of “quack” medicine for many years due to its focus on aesthetics and lack of therapeutic value.[16] World War I changed this, legitimizing the field into mainstream medicine through its treatment of facial wounds and service to the state.[17] Dr. William Balsinger, for example, promoted his wartime work on facially wounded veterans to sell facial treatments to new consumers at his Chicago practice after the war. Balsinger promised that “any woman can in a few minutes change her old complexion for a new one of startling beauty” by simply using his service. What’s more, his plastic surgery of the nose – which he had practiced during the war – promised to make “beauties out of ugly ducklings” through an operation that was as easy as “putting on a new suit of clothes.”[18]

It would be a mistake to focus only on the male surgeons. Women artists significantly contributed to wartime plastic surgery, as much of the surgical work at places like St. Louis would not have been possible without women artists in the operating room. War Department artist Mary Gilmer, for example, worked in the same hospital as Vilray Blair. Originally a portrait painter, Gilmer drew soldiers’ wounds at every operative stage to document the process of reconstruction.[19] Her model faces of each soldier allowed both the surgeon and the patient to see how the face would turn out in the end.[20] Mary Elizabeth Cook also sculpted faces. An artist from Columbus, Ohio, Cook likewise worked at the St. Louis hospital, where she “deftly wielded the sculptor’s knives and chisel, making wax models and plaster casts” that the surgeons consulted as they remade men’s faces. Cook made hundreds of plaster casts and wax models, working from men’s pre-war photographs – as had happened in the fictional account of Richard Morgan – to ensure accuracy.[21]

Although stories about women artists and male plastic surgeons grossly overshadowed the traumatic realities of the war, the medical profession also contributed to this narrative by actively encouraging the public to see the wonders of surgical procedures via facial reconstruction. In September 1919, the maxillofacial department at US Army General Hospital No. 40 in St. Louis, Missouri invited curious civilians to see a public exhibit of casts, photographs, and drawings that depicted each stage of facial reconstruction at the expense of the patients’ privacy. One article told readers that anyone who doubted what Uncle Sam was doing for men with facial wounds should see the exhibit. Some hospital officials, however, were also wary that such an exhibit might objectify the wounded men and border on voyeurism. One article, for example, wanted to publish photographs from the exhibit in the newspaper, but the hospital’s commanding officer argued against it out of consideration for the patients’ feelings.[22] Rather than further objectifying wounded veterans, contemporary accounts about facial wounds overwhelmingly downplayed trauma to highlight medical advances.

Illustration from <em>The Man Nobody Knew</em>
“Shocked and horrified, she was gazing at the picture postcard he had snatched from under his pillow,” Holworthy Hall, The Man Nobody Knew (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1919), 6.

Holworthy Hall also emphasized medical transformation rather than trauma in The Man Nobody Knew. A major theme in that novel, however, was not only Richard Morgan’s physical reconstruction but also his moral one. Morgan’s pre-war life in Syracuse was troubled. He was careless and quick-tempered, and lived his life dependent on the good reputation of his successful father.[23] After his facial reconstruction, he felt morally “uplifted.”[24] Morgan became a man who embraced love and integrity, and who donated his money to charity. The Man Nobody Knew linked already-prevalent themes of visual appearance and morality to war wounds.[25] In Morgan’s case, facial disfigurement and the subsequent surgery gave him the opportunity to turn his life around from being a drain on society to being an industrious, moral, and loving individual.

Facially wounded veterans did not always experience such seamless transitions – or miraculous transformations – as Morgan had. Roy Canby returned from service with one side of his face scarred from mustard gas. After his return, his girlfriend Gertrude left him and he attempted suicide. She was fixated on his wound, and claimed that she would not be with a man “whose face looks like it had been branded with a small waffle iron.” Gertrude also emphasized a change in Canby’s personality following the war. She noted that he no longer liked to have fun and took life too seriously.[26] Roy Canby’s troubled homecoming was not unique. Few American veterans had their experiences as open to public scrutiny like Canby’s, but European veterans give further indication of prolonged struggle.[27] Many of the 60,000 facially wounded British veterans felt exhausted by the many surgeries they endured and had difficulty finding employment. Jobs such as cinema projectionists were viewed as favorable to facially wounded men as they could remain in the dark and out of public sight.[28] Some men were disillusioned upon experiencing terrified reactions from their children.[29] In the face of trauma and stigma, French facially wounded veterans created the Union des Blessés de la Face, a veterans’ organization that promoted messages of the veterans’ self-reliance and independence to the French public.[30]

Richard Morgan did not encounter the myriad challenges faced by Roy Canby or his European counterparts. The Man Nobody Knew uncritically reflected themes present in postwar newspaper articles about the surgical responses to American facially wounded veterans that did not take into account the wounded men’s own experiences. Morgan’s saga, much like the stories about actual facial wounds, kept the wound story firmly in the background and instead focused on the benefits of modern surgery to remake the individual. Not only could Morgan have his face restored, he was able to choose whatever face he wanted and experience a moral transformation. Ultimately, such stories left the thoughts, feelings, and traumas of real veterans – the men nobody really knew – unexplored and unknown in service of legitimizing war and minimizing its physical costs on human bodies.

Notes

  1. This essay was adapted from part of a chapter from my dissertation. Evan P. Sullivan, “Making Good: World War I, Disability, and the Senses in American Rehabilitation,” (Ph.D. diss., University at Albany, 2020).
  2. Holworthy Hall, The Man Nobody Knew (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1919).
  3. Julie Anderson, “Mutilation and Disfiguration,” 1914–1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War, August 3, 2017, https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/mutilation_and_disfiguration.
  4. Fiona Reid, Medicine in First World War Europe: Soldiers, Medics, Pacifists (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 99; See also: Gehrhardt, The Men with Broken Faces; Sophie Delaporte, “Mutilation and Disfiguration (France),” 1914-1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War, February 24, 2015, https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/mutilation_and_disfiguration_france.
  5. Marjorie Gehrhardt, The Men with Broken Faces: Gueules Cassées of the First World War (Peter Lang, 2015), xi–21.
  6. Fiona Reid, “Losing Face: Trauma and Maxillofacial Injury in the First World War,” in Psychological Trauma and the Legacies of the First World War eds. Jason Crouthamel and Peter Leese (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017), 27.
  7. Joe Kember, “Face Value: The Rhetoric of Facial Disfigurement in American Film and Popular Culture, 1917-1927,” Journal of War & Culture Studies 10, no. 1 (February 2017), 43.
  8. Anderson, “Mutilation and Disfiguration.”
  9. Kember, “Face Value,” 44.
  10. “Making Faces,” 20.
  11. “Making Faces: Modern Surgery Is Doing Wonderful Things for the Boys Wounded in France – Mutilated Faces Are Made As Good As New,” South Bend News-Times, July 20, 1919, 20.
  12. Kember, “Face Value,” 43.
  13. “Face Disfigured by Hun Shell, Surgical Skill Restores It,” High Point Enterprise, January 17, 1920, 1; “Tar Heel Soldier’s Face Restored By Surgeon,” Twin-City Daily Sentinel, January 19, 1920, 6.
  14. See Beth Linker, War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America (University of Chicago Press, 2011); John M. Kinder, Paying with Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran (University of Chicago Press, 2015);
  15. “Making Faces,” 20.
  16. Sander L. Gilman, Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (Princeton University Press, 1999), 10–14.
  17. Sander L. Gilman, Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (Princeton University Press, 1999), 10–14.
  18. Janette Opperman, “Strange Mask Transforms Complexion in 30 Minutes!” Daily News Sun, October 22, 1922, 59; George Britt, “Physician Makes Beauties Out of Ugly Ducklins,” The Bee, July 5, 1923, 2.
  19. “How New Faces Are Made for Soldiers at U.S. Hospital Here: Ears and Noses ‘Constructed’ at Old City Infirmary for Men Who Were Wounded in France – Institution Has 971 Beds, but at Present Only 168 Patients,” St. Louis Star and Times, May 23, 1919, 3; Marguerite Martyn, “Woman Portrait Painter Giving Soldiers New Faces Here in St. Louis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 1, 1919, 15.
  20. Martyn, “Woman Portrait Painter,” 15.
  21. “Ohio Girl Helped Make ‘New’ Faces For Soldiers Mutilated In War,” Akron Evening Times, December 28, 1919, 2.
  22. Martyn, “Woman Portrait Painter,” 15.
  23. Hall, The Man Nobody Knew, 56.
  24. Hall, The Man Nobody Knew, 184.
  25. Kember, “Face Value,” 51.
  26. “Disfigured Soldier, Jilted By Sweetheart, Would Hang Himself,” The Courier, November 29, 1919, 8; “Brutally Frank Explanation Why Girl Can’t Marry Her Childhood Lover, Now Disfigured Soldier,” Courier, December 2, 1919, 13; “A Real Tragedy,” Messenger-Inquirer, December 8, 1919, 4.
  27. Kember gives a few examples when he writes about “The Port of Missing Men.” Kember, “Face Value,” 55.
  28. Reid, “Losing Face,” 32–34.
  29. Reid, Medicine in First World War Europe, 108.
  30. Gehrhardt, The Men with Broken Faces, 149-152.

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