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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

The soldiers of World War I confronted terrifying new weapons - machine guns, artillery cannons, gas grenades. Thousands of soldiers came home mutilated beyond recognition. In London and Paris, it was sculptors who helped these men reintegrate into society by making them tin masks.

Caroline Alexander writes about these mask makers in this month's Smithsonian Magazine. Caroline Alexander joins us now from Manhattan.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. CAROLINE ALEXANDER (Author): Hi. Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: So what was it about these new weapons in World War I that resulted in so many injuries to the face?

Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, it was the nature of trench warfare. This kind of artillery was so new that individual soldiers had not, if you will, evolved the instincts to handle this kind of rapid fire. And so what would happen is that people would literally just poke their head up over the top of a trench to see what was happening and just didn't understand that you couldn't dodge a hail of bullets.

ROBERTS: And what sort of injuries would that result in? What were some of the characteristics of the men who needed facial reconstruction?

Ms. ALEXANDER: It's - well, they lost their faces, I suppose is the bluntest way to describe what happened. Parts got blown away. They lacked eyes. They lacked noses or chins. Mirrors were banned in most of these recovery wards and that was because the doctors had learned that when a man caught sight of his face, he really was devastated. There was just no preparation for this.

ROBERTS: And that's where the masks come in, I suppose, that for the patients for whom this sort of nascent cosmetic surgery really couldn't hide the results of their injury, covering it up entirely was the next step.

Ms. ALEXANDER: The idea was born of one man named Francis Dermot Wood(ph), who was a sculptor too old for military service and volunteered to be an orderly in one of the hospitals. And then he came up with this idea that you could make a mask that the soldier could wear and go out and face the world with. And he took enormous pains with this and the British government established a workshop and then the idea was caught up by an American sculptress, Anna Coleman Ladd(ph), who did the same with a studio in Paris for the French wounded.

ROBERTS: You say in your article that Anna Coleman Ladd was inevitably described as a socialite. How does an American socialite who almost dabbled in sculpting become the sculptress of tin masks for wounded in Paris?

Ms. ALEXANDER: I don't think it was - that aspect was quite so remarkable. One of the things about World War I that's perhaps worth remembering in these days of our own war is that a great many of the so-called elite felt it their duty to do something.

What is remarkable to me is that I don't think she was a particularly good sculptress in civilian terms. I mean, if you look at what she did, it certainly doesn't strike any deep chord with me, and yet when she comes down to do these masks, at least as much as we can tell from photographs, this is where she really caught fire.

ROBERTS: Our listeners can go to NPR.org and access photographs of these masks, but can you describe one for us?

Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, what she would do is make a plaster cast of the face and then from that squeeze she would make a metal mask of galvanized copper, and Anna Ladd experimented with different types of paint and it was very difficult to find something that didn't look sort of brassy.

These masks were carefully scrutinized, not just by the men but by their mothers and sweethearts and wives who would come and evidently make very critical comments and say, my Johnny, you know, his eyes were never that color; they were bluer than that.

ROBERTS: And 90 years later, is some version of a mask still used on occasion or has cosmetic surgery caught up?

Ms. ALEXANDER: Cosmetic surgery will never catch up. Facial wounds are one of the more horrific aspects of the war we are engaged in right now. There are far-fetched - I wouldn't say plans but perhaps speculation as to whether robotic masks could be made in the future, but I think before people get all caught up in the excitement and challenge and technological possibilities of making more high-tech masks, perhaps the better thing to do would be to figure out ways not to damage people's faces.

ROBERTS: Caroline Alexander wrote an article called "Faces of War" for this month's Smithsonian magazine. She's also the author of "The Endurance and the Bounty" and a contributing writer with National Geographic magazine.

Caroline Alexander, thank you so much.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Thank you.

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