Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Picturing the Shattered Faces of War: A Guest Post by Kristin Hussey, Hunterian Museum, London

Kristin Hussey--Assistant Curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons with responsibility for the Odontological Collection--has kindly agreed to write a series of guest posts for Morbid Anatomy about some of the most curious objects in her collection.

The fourth post from that series follows; you can view all posts in this series by clicking here.
Picturing the shattered faces of War: First World War dental radiographs
The Victorian era was a crucial time of development for the dental profession, yet nothing could have prepared late 19th century dental practitioners for the massive facial trauma wrought by the First World War (1914-1918). In a conflict fought in trenches, soldier’s heads were the most vulnerable area in the line of fire. While steel helmets undoubtedly saved lives, ricocheting bullets caused unprecedented facial injuries. Mechanized warfare sent soldier home from the Front with disfiguring blast injuries; their shattered jaws held together by wire plating and splints made from whatever materials the clearing stations had to hand.

Many British soldiers with jaw injuries found themselves bound for the Croydon War Hospital outside London to a specialist unit headed by James Frank Colyer (1866-1954), a dental surgeon and the curator of the Odontological Society Museum since 1900. Today the Odontological Collection holds a collection of 23 radiographs, also known as skiagrams, showing the shattered jaws of Colyer’s soldier patients.

Colyer’s prescription for healing fractured jaws was simple but effective. First the patients’ mouths needed to be cleaned and sterilized as their injuries often became infected in the time it took to reach the hospital. Once radiographs were taken, they were taken to the operating theatre to reduce the fracture as much as possible. Colyer was particularly adamant that teeth needed to be removed from the fracture line as these often became septic, keeping the bone from healing. Then supportive splints, rest and a carefully selected diet was what was needed to get Britain’s soldiers fighting fit. For his work at the Croydon Hospital, Colyer was knighted in 1920.

The collection of radiographs in the Odontological Collection is interesting both as a record of First World War injuries, as well as serving as a reminder of the incredible importance of x-ray technology in the early twentieth century. X-rays, also known as roentgen rays, had only been discovered by German Professor William Röntgen in 1895. The new technology was put to use almost immediately in the medical world, and many major hospitals had x-ray departments by 1897. By the time the First World War was raging on the Continent, portable x-ray units were widely used by the military and such equipment could be found at most clearing stations and base hospitals. Although the images are not as detailed as they are today, the radiographs were essential in identifying foreign bodies and fractures previously invisible to the dentist’s eye.
  1. The x-ray equipment at The Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, c. 1917-1920. Courtesy of the Antony Wallace Archive of the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS)
  2. Radiograph of a fractured jaw caused by a rifle bullet, 1915-1919. (RCSOM/F 9.42) Copyright the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons
  3. Radiograph of a fractured jaw resulting from a fall from a mast, 1915-1919. (RCSOM/F 8.3) Copyright the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons
  4. A portable x-ray installation suitable for use in war, 1915. Copyright Wellcome Library, London.  

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