Conflict & Justice

How artists and sculptors healed maimed soldiers during World War I


A French soldier sits for a portrait without (left) and with (right) a mask produced by Anna Coleman Ladd. He was injured during World War I.


Library of Congress/Restoration by Lise Broer

In the trenches of World War I, if a solider stuck his head up, he could easily get it shot off. Or lose major parts of it.

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And due to the archaic medical technology of the time, men who survived this sort of injury would return home from battle with newly disfigured faces, and few places to turn for treatment.

“There was a little bit of plastic surgery available, but it could only go so far when you had, say, a nose missing,” says Olga Khazan, a staff reporter for The Atlantic.

So — as Khazan detailed in a recent piece for The Atlantic — a corps of artists and sculptors began designing lifelike face masks that could be worn by maimed soldiers.

“There were these two sculptors, Francis Derwent Wood and Anna Coleman Ladd, who started to work in these special kinds of hospitals — one of them was called The Tin Noses Shop — where they would actually sculpt these masks for some of these disfigured soldiers,” Khazan says. “And these soldiers would wear these masks if their face was so severely disfigured that they felt uncomfortable being around their friends and family.”

The sculptors had their own technique in designing and constructing these masks. Ladd, for instance, would first take plaster casts of a soldier’s face, and would then create a partial or full mask out of copper. She would paint the mask to match the skin color of the wounded soldier, and she would tie that piece to the man’s head, or hang it from a set of eyeglasses.

“One thing that was a prevailing sentiment at the time was that [facial disfigurement] was the very worst kind of injury you could have,” Khazan says. “These soldiers’ children would flee from them… [they] were completely isolated from other patients  ... [and] they were paid the full pension by the government because it was considered this total loss of identity.”

As a result, soldiers were quick to express their gratitude to the artists and sculptors constructing their lifelike face masks.

“Anna Ladd later wrote about how the soldiers would write to her and say ‘Oh, thank you so much, my wife no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do,’” says Khazan.  

Unfortunately, though, the face masks did not serve as a permanent fix for the maimed men.

“Even just after a year — you know, they were painted on copper — [the masks] would start to chip and get really worn,” Khazan says. “And to the extent they did look good at the outset, they started to wear down after a while.”  

Still, Khazan notes, something was better than nothing.

“To the extent that they were able — at least for a short time — to walk around in society, it certainly made a difference.”