Women have been serving in combat positions in the U.S. military since World War II, but they’ve been bearing the costs of war for all of human history.
In World War I, women served as doctors, nurses, and ambulance drivers, the National WWI Museum and Memorial reports. In the UK, some served in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, while many others took over the jobs men left behind as they were shipped off to the front lines.
Without the efforts of these women, distribution of supplies and ammunition to the Allies would have come to a complete halt. The war would have likely been lost.
It is to these women that the western world owes a debt of gratitude, but one stands out from the rest for her work in restoring the dignity of those who suffered serious facial injuries in battle.
Anna Coleman Ladd, an American sculpture from New England, educated in Paris and Rome, would not seem like the most battle-minded individual a service member would count on as a resource. However, the masks she made for those injured in the war became more than just memorabilia.
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According to the Smithsonian, Ladd created realistic “likenesses and sculptures of what the men had looked like before their injuries, strove to restore, as much as possible, a mutilated man’s original face.”
“The psychological effect on a man who must go through life, an object of horror to himself as well as to others, is beyond description,” wrote Dr. Fred Albee, an American surgeon working in France during WWI. “…It is a fairly common experience for the maladjusted person to feel like a stranger to his world. It must be unmitigated hell to feel like a stranger to yourself.”
Ladd’s work restored a quality of life to these men and helped them reclaim their identities in civilian society. Her foray into medical devices after an upbringing in fine arts was influenced by Francis Derwent Wood, founder of the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department, who oversaw the creation of rubber and metallic masks for troops in Europe.
“I endeavor by means of the skill I happen to possess as a sculptor to make a man’s face as near as possible to what it looked like before he was wounded,” Wood wrote. “My cases are generally extreme cases that plastic surgery has, perforce, had to abandon; but, as in plastic surgery, the psychological effect is the same. The patient acquires his old self-respect, self assurance, self-reliance,…takes once more to a pride in his personal appearance. His presence is no longer a source of melancholy to himself nor of sadness to his relatives and friends.”
The masks were quite obvious when first introduced, but Ladd’s work made them more subtle, and more humanizing.
“Skin hues, which look bright on a dull day, show pallid and gray in bright sunshine, and somehow an average has to be struck,” wrote Grace Harper, the Chief of the Bureau for the Reeducation of Mutilés. “The artist has to pitch her tone for both bright and cloudy weather, and has to imitate the bluish tinge of shaven cheeks.”
Ladd painted her masks with washable enamel paints that bore a matte finish closely resembling human skin, according to the American Museum of National History.
Few of Ladd’s masks are still around, but the letters she received explain how effective and important they were to those who were fitted with them.
“Thanks to you, I will have a home,” read a letter from one soldier “…The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do.”
Learn more about Ladd’s incredible work in the video below!
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.