World War I caused the death of millions of combatants and civilians, while countless soldiers suffered from injury and disfigurement. Perhaps the most disheartening were facial injuries, as soldiers had to not only deal with the physical loss, but also the constant psychological stress of wondering how people would react to their changed appearance. These men worried about their homecoming, how they would be treated by friends and family. Many sustained injuries that went beyond the ability of surgery to repair. They were called “mutilés” – soldiers whose faces had been horribly disfigured by the weapons of war. Some were missing an eye, an ear or their nose; some were missing half their jaw or had horrible burns distorting their face. Many of the soldiers refused to leave the hospital. Some committed suicide.
People get used to seeing men with arms and legs missing, but they never get used to an abnormal face.
Lettie Gavin in “American Women in World War I”
The medical community couldn’t help them. These unfortunate soldiers turned to portrait masks. Pioneered by English sculptor Francis Derwent Wood (1871–1926), portrait masks were modelled from photographs taken before the injury and were painted in oils to resemble the former features of the patient.
When Wood was too old (at 41) to enlist in the Army at the onset of World War I, he volunteered in the hospital wards and his exposure to the gruesome injuries inflicted by the new war’s weapons eventually led him to open a special clinic: the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department, located in the Third London General Hospital, Wandsworth. Instead of the rubber masks used conventionally, Wood constructed masks of thin metal, sculpted to match the portraits of the men in their pre-war normality. Just as had been happening with soldiers operated upon with the recent advances in plastic surgery, Wood’s masks provided each with a renewed self-confidence, even self-respect, though they often proved uncomfortable.
Wood’s work reached America in 1917, and eventually came to the attention of fellow sculptor, Anna Coleman Ladd.
Anna Coleman Ladd (née Watts) (1878–1939) was born in Philadelphia and educated in Europe, where she studied sculpture in Paris and Rome. She moved to Boston in 1905 when she married Dr. Maynard Ladd, and there studied for three years at the Boston Museum School.
In late 1917, Ladd felt an instant need to offer her skills to these recovering soldiers, and left for France under the sponsorship of the American Red Cross. She set up the “Studio for Portrait-Masks”, in Paris, to provide cosmetic masks to be worn by men who had been badly disfigured in war.
Soldiers would come to Ladd’s studio to have a cast made of their face and their features sculpted onto clay or plasticine. This form was then used to construct the prosthetic piece from extremely thin galvanized copper. Then, Ladd would paint the mask while it was on the soldier so that she could achieve a flesh color as close as possible to the real skin tone.
If the disfigurement included the entire mouth, she would model the lips with space to accommodate a cigarette holder. For those who desired, a moustache could be added. Eyes were painted on if needed but eyelashes, eyebrows and even mustaches were created with fine copper wire that looked natural and would withstand the occasional mustachio twirling so popular with Frenchmen. Most masks were held in place with spectacles but, if a soldier didn’t want glasses, Ladd found alternative methods, like thin wire or ribbon, to secure the mask.
The average cost of the masks was only $18 due, in large part, to the fact that Ladd’s services were donated. Reports vary as to the number of masks that Ladd and her team created. Some say 60, others say over 100. But the impact on the lives of the soldiers they helped—and their families—is immeasurable.
One of Ladd’s patients was a man who had refused for more than two years to return home because he did not want his mother to see him. He lived in seclusion, hiding his gargoyle-like appearance, until he met Ladd. Wearing the mask Ladd created for him, this young man was finally able to return to his family.
Ladd didn’t want to just hide the soldier’s disfigurement. She wanted to restore his sense of self – “his personality, his hopes and ambitions.” To do this she created a homelike environment where the men would feel at ease. In describing the studio, Ladd said:
“We always tried to keep the place cheerful and frequently had the boys sitting around playing games. . . . We laughed with them and helped them to forget. That is what they longed for and deeply appreciated.”
After Ladd left Paris in December, 1918, her colleagues and assistants continued the work of the studio for another year before it closed. Her services earned her the Légion d’Honneur Croix de Chevalier and the Serbian Order of Saint Sava.
In 1936, Ladd retired with her husband to California, where she died in 1939.
Sources/More to Read:
Wikipedia: Anna Coleman Ladd
Wikipedia: Francis Derwent Wood
Red Cross Organisation: Restorative Face Masks for WWI Soldiers
Awesome Stories: Anna Coleman Ladd and her life
Smithsonian Magazine: Faces of War
Anna Coleman Ladd’s Studio for Portrait Masks in Paris