Anna Coleman Ladd: The Woman Who Gave Back Self-Esteem To Mutilated Soldiers With Facial Prosthetics

Anna Coleman Ladd created prosthetics for soldiers whose faces had been mutilated in World War I. By doing so, they were able to recover their self-esteem.

When we talk about wars we usually talk about the historical context, main conflict, and the casualties in both human and material terms. However, something that’s rarely spoken of is those who managed to survive. Unless they become important historical figures, we tend to forget those who have to go back to their lives after the traumatic events they endured. Yes, there are things like events for veterans and soldiers, but still, most of them live in absolute anonymity, while trying to find their purpose in life once again. Now, let's talk for a moment about those veterans who, on top of everything else, also had physical injuries to live with for the rest of their lives. During WWI, the most common injury was actually facial mutilation. If you remember your history lessons, WWI was mainly trench warfare, and the head was the most vulnerable body part, since it was what most of them would expose to their enemies.

As a result, thousands (if not millions) were taken to hospitals and medical facilities, where they were mostly interested in saving their lives rather than doing something to restore their mutilated faces. By that time, plastic surgery was still very rudimentary, not to mention that not all of these soldiers were lucky enough to be treated by a plastic surgeon. As a matter of fact, facial disfigurement or mutilation was one of the very few causes a soldier could get a full pension for, mainly because, as historian Suzannah Biernoff explains, it was seen as an injury that “compromised one’s sense of self and social existence.”

With this in mind, we're going to talk about two artists who stopped making art in order to help soldiers get their life back. In the UK, Francis Derwent Wood opened “The Tin Noses Shop,” whose original name was actually “Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department.” There, he made masks to help them conceal their scars and mutilated faces. However, though he’s considered the pioneer of this work, it was actually an sculptor based in France, Anna Coleman Ladd, whose job became more popular, not only due to the skill she had to create masks that resembled these men’s features before their accidents, but also because she created an environment that helped them heal emotionally. She believed it was her job to give something back to the men who had given their all to serve their country.

Married to a doctor who had been sent to France to attend the injured, Ladd was looking for something she could do to help as well. She had been acquainted with Wood and his work and decided it was something she could be very good at, so in 1917, with the help of the American Red Cross, she set her own studio and started working. The process of creating one single mask was really long, not only because of the actual work, but also because she wanted to have all the elements to create masks that really resembled them. Besides basing her work on photographs (when they had at least one), she used to have long conversations with her clients to really get who they were and understand their features and personalities. 

The masks were first made with plaster casts modeled on their disfigured faces. As you can see from the photo above, she then created several plasters of the restoration process. When she made a face sculpture she was happy with, she then would use a very thin copper foil to shape it as the plaster. The difficult part of the process was painting the metal to make it look as similar to the skin tone as possible. To do so, she would ask the person to put on the mask, and she would paint it directly, so that it would match the skin color perfectly. To make them look even more realistic, she would paint some strokes to resemble hair, or if the mask was placed at some point where the man had facial hair, she would add real ones. She even gave them the option to add mustaches or even a subtle hole in the mouth to hold cigarettes: anything that would help them have a more normal life.

In some cases, she would make the entire mask, but in most of them, and what makes of her work so amazing, she would only design for the affected area. That’s why these are often called early prosthetics because she was so meticulous, working only on the spaces needed so that they wouldn’t feel they had lost all their essence and features. This, naturally, gave them back their confidence, since they would see themselves as if all their face had been damaged when it wasn’t entirely the case for many. Sadly, her venture wouldn’t last long; actually, it only lasted two years where she was able to produce 185 (of which none exist anymore, since in most cases they were buried with them). In 1920, the studio was closed when the Red Cross was no longer able to pay for it. Masks would cost the client only $18 USD, which was basically nothing, if you think about it. This was because Anna would donate her work and most of the expenses to make it happen. But without the support of the Red Cross, she wasn’t able to carry on. 

She went back to Boston and continued working on her art, but her work wasn’t forgotten. In 1932, she was honored as Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for her work, which is now considered to be the origin of anaplastology, widely used in plastic surgery and prosthetics. On the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, the Smithsonian Museum held an exhibition of the many photographs about her work, plus tons of letters she received from the soldiers she worked with. Here, it’s explained how many of them even feared going back home and pushed the date because they didn’t want their family and loved ones to see them after their accidents. With these, there are, of course, tons of testimonies thanking her for giving them their lives back and a chance to lead a normal life when they thought it was all over. It’s not only the talent Ladd should be praised for, but actually her efforts to make these men feel confident once again and learn how to turn their vulnerability into strength to move on.


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