shrapnel

When people think of plastic surgery, the mind congers up images of everything from severe scar repair to vanity surgeries, but who originally came up with these procedures. Although the development of plastic surgery is popularly believed to have taken place in modern times, the origins of plastic surgery are very old. In the early part of the 1400s, the nose received the most attention from the early plastic surgeons. One of the first procedures for reconstructing the nose, a primitive precursor to the nose job, is attributed to a surgeon called Antonio Branca.

After that era, Plastic surgery had to wait until the late 18th century for the next significant advance in its history…the skin graft. And ironically the breakthrough came from rediscovering a procedure developed in ancient India. The severe-looking skin graft procedure was rediscovered in an ancient book called the “Sushruta Samhita,” dating back to 8th century BC. There hidden in the book’s 184 chapters was a technique using a leaf-shaped flap from the forehead to reconstruct the nose. The technique was published in the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine of Calcutta’ in October 1794 and it soon became widely used. It was known as the “Indian Method”.

While these methods undoubtedly had a great impact on the history of plastic surgery, it would be another event that would have one of the biggest impacts on plastic surgery, and its methodology. That event was World War I. Shrapnel was the cause of many facial injuries during world War I, and unlike the straight-line wounds inflicted by bullets, the twisted metal shards produced from a shrapnel blast could easily rip a face off. Harold Gillies, a surgeon, was horrified by the injuries he saw, and he immediately took on the task of helping these victims. He saw these men as more than victims. They were heroes, and that’s how he saw them. He knew he had to do something to help these men get back to a normal life. So, he pioneered early techniques of facial reconstruction in the process.

While these were great advances, it’s likely that the most significant improvements in the history of plastic surgery occurred in the last century. Several plastic surgery techniques were introduced during the world wars. Skin grafting techniques such as the “tubed pedicled graft,” were state of the art during World War I. Archibald McIndoe and Harold Gillies refined the techniques to treat severe facial burns. These staged procedures differed from earlier plastic surgery because they relied on the growth and development of a blood supply from the recipient bed into the grafted tissue over many weeks or months. While that all seems pretty normal these days, it was unheard of until then.

When World War I broke out, many young men were called into service. It is a common part of war…one we all know about, and most parents dread. World War I was unique in one way, however. There was a soldier who went to war who was different. He was not different in the way he served exactly, but rather in some other very obvious ways. His speech was different. His mentality was somewhat different, and his looks were different. I’m not being discriminatory, but simply stating a fact. His name was Jackie, and he was different because he was a monkey, well actually, he was a Chacma baboon (Papio ursinus). Jackie was found in August 1915 near the Marr’s family farm in Villeria, Pretoria, South Africa by Albert Marr and soon became a beloved pet.

When the war started and the young men were drafted, Albert was no exception. The thing is that Albert couldn’t stand the thought of leaving his beloved pet at home. Albert was assigned to service at Potchefstroom in the North West province of South Africa as private number 4927 for the newly formed 3rd Transvaal Regiment of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade on the 25th August 1915. He approached his superiors and requested that Jackie be allowed to go with him and amazingly was given permission. I’m sure that seems as odd to you as it did to me, but it goes further. Once enlisted Jackie was given a special uniform complete with buttons, a cap, regimental badges, a pay book and his own rations. He was a true member of the regiment, but that doesn’t mean he was accepted as a part of it…at first anyway. The other members of the regiment initially ignored Jackie, but like most people around a monkey, or in this case, baboon, it was hard to ignore him for very long. Jackie soon became the official mascot of the 3rd Transvaal Regiment. Jackie took his duties very seriously, however. He wasn’t there just to eat and fool around!

Jackie was very smart, and when he saw a superior officer passing, he would stand to attention and even provide them with the correct salute. He would light cigarettes for his comrades in arms and was, without a doubt, the best sentry around, due to his great senses of hearing and smelling which allowed him to be able to detect any enemy long before any of his other army mates could even notice their approach. He wasn’t a coddled pet protected for the battles either. Jackie spent three years in the front line amongst the trenches of France and Flanders in Europe. During the Senussi Campaign on 26 February 1916 in Egypt, Jackie’s beloved Albert got wounded on his shoulder by an enemy bullet. Jackie stayed beside him until the stretcher bearers arrived, licking the wound and doing what he could to comfort his friend.

Albert and Jackie both held the rank of private, and in April of 1918, both got injured in the Passchendaele area in Belgium during a heavy fire. With explosions surrounding them, Jackie was seen trying to get some protection by building a little fortress of stones around himself. He didn’t manage to finish his little safe area soon enough, and was hit by a chunk of shrapnel from a shell explosion nearby, which also injured Albert. Jackie’s right leg was seriously wounded and later had to be amputated. Jackie and Albert both made a full recovery and shortly before the armistice, Jackie was promoted to corporal, and awarded a medal for valor.

At the end of April, Jackie was officially discharged at the Maitland Dispersal Camp, Cape Town, South Africa, while wearing on his arm a gold wound stripe and three blue service chevrons indicating three years of frontline service. He was given a parchment discharge paper, a military pension and a Civil Employment Form for discharged soldiers. After his service, Jackie returned to the Marr’s farm where he lived until May 22, 1921…a sad day for all who knew him.  Albert Marr lived until the age of 84 and died in Pretoria in August 1973. Jackie was an amazing Chacma Baboon who, because of a fateful connection, ended up as the only monkey to reach the rank of Corporal of the South African Infantry and fight in Egypt, Belgium and France during World War I. Now that’s amazing!!!

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