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Archives reveal Sidcup hospital's role in the birth of modern plastic surgery

PUBLISHED: 16:00 08 November 2012

The operating theatre in action

The operating theatre in action

Gillies Archive

The wounded returned from the first great armed conflict of the 20th century lucky to be alive but unrecognisable to their loved ones.

Dr Andrew BamjiDr Andrew Bamji

The wounded returned from the first great armed conflict of the 20th century lucky to be alive but unrecognisable to their loved ones.

These pictures reveal the ugly reality of war – the disfigurements of thousands of young men who travelled to Sidcup to be treated by Dr Harold Gillies, the pioneer of plastic surgery.

During the First World War, New Zealand-born Dr Gillies was developing his surgical techniques with injured victims at his hospital in Aldershot, but it became apparent that the facilities were inadequate to cope with the volume of patients.

He wanted to establish a specialist hospital dedicated to plastic surgery.

One of the patients at Queen Mary's HospitalOne of the patients at Queen Mary's Hospital

Queen’s Hospital, now named Queen Mary’s Hospital, was built in Frognal Avenue in 1915.

Until October last year, the hospital was home to the Gillies Archive, which held more than 2,500 files of Dr Gillies’ plastic surgery cases from 1917 to 1925.

They detailed a fraction of the 11,752 major operations which were carried out from 1917 to 1921, mostly on Allied soldiers with severe facial injuries.

Dr Andrew Bamji, a rheumatologist at the hospital, became the archive’s curator in 1989.

Before the 1980s the records were thought to have been lost. It was believed that the British records had been held by the Royal College of Surgeons and destroyed in bombing during the Second World War.

But in 1989 it emerged that the dental school at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, held that country’s records and four years later, the British records were found at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, where they had lain almost untouched since 1925.

They include each soldiers’ rank, number, regiment and date of wounding, so the action in which they were injured can often be identified.

The entries also include photos, letters and postcards.

“It’s entirely by luck that they survived. Most of the records were destroyed in the 1920s and Queen’s Hospital was on the verge of getting rid of them before I started enquiring,” explains Dr Bamji.

“It wasn’t a big passion of mine before I took over the archives, but as the material started to trickle in, you really got a human picture of the hospital during and after war. It also helped me realise what a great man Dr Gillies was. He gave people a second chance at life, he was the father of modern-day plastic surgery.”

Queen Mary’s has been labelled the birthplace of plastic surgery for that very reason. Many of the techniques invented and developed there by Dr Gillies have since become standard practice.

For example, Dr Gillies pioneered the rebuilding of wounds by using tissue from elsewhere on the body.

Dr Bamji, 62, added: “He was prepared to try anything. He wouldn’t give up. Gillies’ unique idea was to marry cosmetic appearance and function.”

Queen Mary’s still carries out cosmetic work to this day.

Orthodontic consultant Mark Sayers said: “We are proud of our work at Queen Mary’s, continuing the legacy of Harold Gillies, pioneer plastic surgeon, who treated deformities to help patients live normal lives. We are using our team’s dedication and experience to help patients, and new doctors, get the best results.”

The dispersal of the records at Queen Mary’s last year was due to restructuring at South London Healthcare Trust, which managed the hospital.

They have been split between the Royal College of Surgeons, the Brotherton Library in Leeds, the Army Medical Services Museum in Aldershot and the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons.

But Dr Bamji is not too despondent about the future of the archives.

“I don’t know what would have happened to them when I die. No one was willing to take them on, so it’s good that the material has gone to places where it will be fully appreciated.”

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