Holworthy Hall’s The Man Nobody Knew and Facial Wound Narratives after World War I
By Evan P. Sullivan
via the Nursing Clio collaborative blog project web site
In his 1919 novel The Man Nobody Knew, Holworthy Hall introduced readers to Richard Morgan, a fictional American soldier who enlisted in the French Foreign Legion during World War I. Disaffected from his hometown of Syracuse, New York and a broken engagement, Morgan fought in the war to prove his worth to society. Authorities reported Richard Morgan as dead shortly after he arrived in France in 1915, but he had actually suffered a severe facial wound and was recuperating, anonymously, in a French hospital. Despondent about his disfigurement, he found hope after hearing that surgeons could reconstruct his face to appear as it had before the war, as long as Morgan gave them a photograph of himself to guide their reconstruction. Rather than lend a pre-war photo, Morgan gave surgeons a postcard that depicted an attractive image of Jesus Christ. Morgan obtained his new sanctified face and went home to reclaim his lost love. It might be easy to write this story off as silly fiction, but Hall’s Richard Morgan saga reflected the American public’s simultaneous confidence in medicine, and searing unease about the facial reconstruction of wounded soldiers after World War I.
Facial wounds loomed large in the cultural milieu of belligerent societies after the war. Shrapnel, mustard gas, and bullets disfigured hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ faces. There were even specific terms in France and Germany that invoked the traumatic nature of facial wounds: the French called them les gueules cassées (the men with broken faces); the Germans called them Gesichts-Entstellten (twisted face) or Menschen ohne Gesicht (men without faces) Historian Marjorie Gehrhardt has argued that such wounds were both “very personal and extremely public,” and though these men tried to live ordinary lives after 1918, they became embodied reminders of the war’s carnage. When leaders of the belligerent nations came together to sign the Treaty of Versailles, for example, the French delegation sent a group of facially-wounded veterans to serve as “a living protest to the German delegation.”
The US Army struggled to reintegrate facially wounded veterans into postwar society. Over 2,000 American soldiers had facial or jaw wounds, and 600 of those soldiers required extensive surgery in hospitals in the United States. At US Army General Hospital No. 40 in St. Louis, American surgeon Vilray Blair assumed a similar role to his European counterpart, Harold Gillies, who famously operated on facially wounded soldiers at Queens Hospital in England. Under Blair’s direction, the St. Louis hospital kept American patients under a “visual quarantine”; the men lived in a building that was physically separated from the rest of the hospital by a wooden ramp. The isolated patients usually endured eight to ten surgeries over a period of months or sometimes years in order to achieve restoration to a “normal type.” The ramp that separated them, one observer optimistically wrote, was a bridge “not of sighs” but of “joy and light and laughter, for over it men pass, their jaws show away, every tooth gone, noses and cheeks cruelly torn, a sight to make angels weep; and back again they may come in time, restored to a normal type.”
Read the entire article on the Nursing Clio web site here:
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