Before-And-After Photos Of Plastic Surgery’s Early Days

Published March 23, 2017
Updated September 29, 2017
Walter Yeo First Surgery
Making Plaster Masks
Plastic Surgery Mask
Posing With Plaster Mask
Before-And-After Photos Of Plastic Surgery’s Early Days
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Before it became predominantly associated with celebrity nips and tucks, plastic surgery was about saving lives. The medical procedure would change a person’s life – not by giving them a little extra confidence, but by making it possible to walk outside again.

On some level, plastic surgery has been around for thousands of years – but the idea really got started during World War I, when doctors performed the first skin graft. With the world at war, medical science made some incredible leaps that would change plastic surgery forever.

Sir Harold Gillies, a doctor from New Zealand, pioneered the early techniques. He performed the first-ever skin graft in 1917, on a British man named Walter Yeo. Yeo was a sailor who had been horribly burned in combat. His nose was shattered, and his eyelids were torn completely off.

Using skin from Yeo's neck and upper chest, Gillies made a mask of skin that he transplanted across Yeo’s face. It helped repair the damage that had been done, hiding his disfiguration and letting him close his eyes at night once more.

But it didn’t stop with Yeo. Gillies and his colleagues treated thousands of people before the war ended. Some had been burned by mustard gas and others left greatly disfigured by gunfire. Some lost entire sections of their faces.

When jaws and eyes were missing, the doctors made plaster masks -- sometimes held in place with a pair of spectacles -- that patients could wear to conceal the damage.

When the war ended, Gillies and his cousin, Archibald McIndoe, took their work to the public. They spread their techniques to doctors around the world, and private clinics started opening up.

In time, cosmetic surgery would come into fashion, and the world’s idea of plastic surgery would change. People would start getting nose jobs to look a little prettier or even to hide their ethnicities. Others would receive breast augmentations, liposuction, or face lifts.

But in the beginning, plastic surgery was the life-saving operation that made it possible for disfigured veterans and victims of horrific injuries to attempt to forge on. It was a new lease on life, proof that injury didn’t have to spell the end.

If you're still not squeamish and you're ready for more on the history of medicine and surgery, you can go in-depth on Walter Yeo, and discover the most evil science experiments ever performed as well as the weird history of breast implants.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
Cite This Article
Oliver, Mark. "Before-And-After Photos Of Plastic Surgery’s Early Days.", March 23, 2017, Accessed April 21, 2024.