The father of modern plastic surgery is Dr. Harold Gillies, but his career started far from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. He pioneered his techniques in 1917 while serving in the First World War. Tasked with repairing soldiers' wartime injuries, Dr. Gillies's operations helped to counteract the gruesome injuries of shrapnel and trench warfare.
Born in New Zealand, Dr. Gillies studied medicine at Cambridge. Shortly after World War I broke out, he joined the British Army Medical Corps to apply his skills. Trench warfare and shrapnel were new elements of war at the time, and many soldiers came home horribly disfigured. Seeing this, Dr. Gillies requested that the British Army set up a specific unit for him to do facial and body reconstruction. He would go on to treat thousands of wounded soldiers, and his work became the foundation for modern plastic surgery.
Dr. Gillies's hallmark was focusing not only on the functional repair but the aesthetic restoration as well. While some never recovered psychologically, surgery helped many soldiers return home with a bit more dignity and confidence.
At the time, reconstructive surgery came with serious risks. Antibiotics were not common, especially on the battlefield, and some of Dr. Gillies's patients died of infection. Nonetheless, his setbacks didn't stop him from pushing the envelope and continuing to pursue the practice.
During World War II, Dr. Gillies served as a consultant to Great Britain, creating units and teaching doctors in the field of plastic surgery. He would also go on to create a private practice, where he would treat famous patients, travel for lectures and teach classes.
Dr. Gillies’s made two final contributions to medical science. He performed the world's first female-to-male sex reassignment surgery in 1946, and just five years later he led the first male-to-female reassignment. This procedure became a standard in the medical field for nearly 40 years.