Dr. Ross Tilley: Rebuilding Faces and Lives

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Operating Room: Painted by Charles Goldhamer in 1945, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art Canadian War Museum 19710261-3899

Aviation burns were horrific. During the Second World War, plastic surgery techniques developed rapidly, helping victims lead more normal lives. Dr. Archibald McIndoe, a British plastic surgeon, and Dr. Ross Tilley, a Royal Canadian Air Force medical officer, pioneered a highly successful physical and emotional rehabilitation program at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, England.

Of the 650 men treated in this experimental program, 176 were Canadians. The patients, who recognized the experimental nature of the surgery, called themselves “The Guinea Pig Club”. In addition to undergoing surgery, they were encouraged to go out and mingle with members of the community, despite their disfiguring injuries.

The innovative surgical work of doctors McIndoe and Tilley, as well as the compelling faces of their patients, captured the imagination of official war artist Charles Goldhamer. From 1944 to 1946, Goldhamer portrayed severely burnt airmen convalescing at an advanced plastic surgery unit in England.

When he returned to Canada at the end of the war, Dr. Tilley continued to perform burn surgery in Kingston and Toronto, eventually founding a specialized burn centre that is now part of Sunnybrook Hospital. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and a member of the Order of Canada for his pioneering surgical and humanitarian work.

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Canadian War Museum

The Canadian War Museum is Canada’s national museum of military history and one of the world’s most respected museums for the study and understanding of armed conflict.

The Museum traces its origins back to 1880, when it consisted primarily of a collection of militia artifacts. The Museum opened at its new location on the LeBreton Flats site in downtown Ottawa on May 8, 2005. Its opening not only marked the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe (V-E Day) but also the 125th anniversary of the Museum itself. Since its opening in 2005, the Museum has welcomed approximately 500,000 visitors every year.