About Dr Harold Gillies

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The Cosmetic Surgery Grants Program is named in honor of Dr Harold Gillies, CBE FRCS (Also known as Sir Harold Gillies) Born June 17th, 1882, a New Zealand-born, and later London-based, otolaryngologist who is widely considered the father of modern cosmetic and plastic surgery.

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Gillies was born in Dunedin, New Zealand. He attended Wanganui Collegiate School and studied medicine at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, where despite a stiff elbow sustained sliding down the banisters at home as a child, he was an excellent sportsman.

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Following the outbreak of World War I he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. Initially posted to Wimereux, near Boulogne, he acted as medical minder to a French-American dentist, Valadier, who was not allowed to operate unsupervised but was attempting to develop jaw repair work. Gillies, eager after seeing Valadier experimenting with nascent skin graft techniques, then decided to leave for Paris to meet the renowned surgeon Hippolyte Morestin.

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He saw him remove a tumour on a patient's face, and cover it with jaw skin taken from the patient. Gillies became enthusiastic about the work and on his return to England persuaded the army's chief surgeon, William Arbuthnot-Lane, that a facial injury ward should be established at the Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot. This rapidly proved inadequate and a new hospital devoted to facial repairs was developed at Sidcup.

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The Queen's Hospital opened in June 1917 and with its convalescent units provided over 1,000 beds. There, Gillies and his colleagues developed many techniques of plastic surgery and more than 11,000 operations were performed on over 5,000 men (mostly soldiers with facial injuries, usually from gunshot wounds).

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The hospital, later to become Queen Mary's Hospital, was at Frognal House (the birthplace and property of Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney after whom Sydney, Australia was named). Between the wars Gillies developed a substantial private practice with Rainsford Mowlem, including many famous patients, and travelled extensively, lecturing, teaching and promoting the most advanced techniques worldwide. 

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During World War II Gillies acted as a consultant to the Ministry of Health, the RAF and the Admiralty. He organised plastic surgery units in various parts of Britain and inspired colleagues to do the same, including pioneering plastic surgeon Stewart Harrison who founded the plastic surgery unit at Wexham Park Hospital, Berkshire.

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Instead of retiring at the end of the Second World War Gillies had to keep working as he had insufficient savings. In 1946, he and a colleague carried out one of the first sex reassignment surgeries from female to male on Michael Dillon. In 1951 he and colleagues carried out one of the first modern sex reassignment surgeries from male to female using a flap technique on Roberta Cowell, which became the standard for 40 years.

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For many years his home was at 71 Frognal, in the heart of London's Hampstead village. A blue plaque on the front of that house now commemorates his life and work. In 2015, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge built 12 houses and named their road Harold Gillies Close (CB5 8ZD) in his honor.

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