Cosmetic surgery has become deeply ingrained within society today, allowing us to change practically any aspect of our appearance. From rhinoplasty and liposuction to breast augmentation or the facelift – there’s a huge choice of procedures available. However, did you know that many of the procedures that are so popular today, were developed and benefited greatly from advances made in World War I?

Here, we’ll look at how WWI impacted cosmetic surgery, turning it into the phenomenon it is today.

How modern cosmetic surgery was born

The events of World War I had a horrific impact on humanity and have recently been the focus of much renewed interest as we celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the end of the war. Although the exact figure is unknown, it is estimated that a staggering 20 million lost their lives and a further 21 million were wounded. It was the worst event in human history and surgeons were required to develop new techniques in order to deal with the catastrophic injuries presented.

By the time the war had ended, 735,487 British troops were discharged due to severe injuries. Of these, 16% of the injuries affected the face, with over a third being classified as severe. This often left the survivor with serious deformities, making it difficult for them to eat, drink and even breathe properly.

WWI's impact on cosmetic surgeryIt was Harold Gillies, a young New Zealand Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon, who decided to develop new techniques to repair these severe deformities. So, in 1916, he set up the first plastic surgery centre in Aldershot within the Cambridge Military Hospital. Expecting around 200 patients upon its opening, Gillies was instead met with over 2000 patients to treat.

A process of trial and error

Although some work that was carried out at the centre was based on previous work in India, the majority of techniques were developed via trial and error. This led to one of the main techniques, the pedicle skin graft, to be introduced.

The graft involved separating a piece of skin without detaching it, from a healthy area of the body. It was then stitched inside a tube, before being attached to the affected area. The patient would need to wait for a set amount of time for the blood flow to develop before the suture was detached and the tube was opened for the flat skin to be stitched over the area.

The results from this procedure weren’t perfect, but they did drastically improve the lives of the injured soldiers. Even after the war ended, procedures were carried out for years and they were continuously improved.

The advancement of anaesthesia

Another of the major developments in the field of cosmetic surgery was in anaesthesia. Due to the level of work required to repair severe facial and head injuries, better anaesthetic was required to make the procedures bearable. Anaesthesia was actually developed into a speciality area and the people administering it were properly trained.

A properly trained and qualified cosmetic surgeon in the UK is known as a plastic and reconstructive surgeon as the latter will inform and enhance surgery performed for aesthetic improvements to the face or body.