HR Lumley and pioneering facial surgery

24 Oct

Wartime often brings advances in medical treatments. In the Great War, this included the development of facial reconstructive surgery. Techniques were developed, but these had to build on trial and error – these errors could lead help advance the science, but they could also cost men their lives. One of those who lost his life in this way was Henry Ralph Lumley.

[Warning: one of the photos in this post is not suitable for the squeamish]

2Lt Henry Ralph Lumley

Henry Ralph Lumley was born in Marylebone in March 1892, son of barrister (and playwright) Ralph Robert Lumley and his wife Florence. Following his father’s death in 1900, young Henry was sent off the Christ’s Hospital (the Bluecoat School) for his education. He then returned to London and worked at the Eastern Telegraph Company as a telegraph operator until August 1915.

After a few months without work, he ‘attested’ under the Derby Scheme and then filled in an application form to become an officer in the Royal Flying Corps, in December 1915. In April 1916, he was appointed as an officer and went to Christ Church College, Oxford, for his flying training.

By July, Lumley had taken and passed his flying test and his appointment as a flying officer was approved from the 14th. On that day, he was flying in a BE12 from the Central Flying School at Upavon in Wiltshire, next to Salisbury Plain. The flight ended with a crash on the Plain and Lumley suffering extremely severe burns.

Lumley after his flying accident. [(c) Gillies Archive]

As well as the burns to his whole face, Lumley lost his left eye and could barely see out of the right eye. He had burns to his fingers and lost part or all of both thumbs. His legs were also both severely burned, resulting in restricted movement.

Despite his wounds, Lumley lived for nearly two more years.  In early 1917, he was a patient at King Edward VII Hospital for Officers, on Grosvenor Gardens. While he was there, Sister Agnes wrote a letter about him:

I am writing for 2 Lieut H.R. Lumley R.F.C who has been most terribly burnt in a flying accident. He was boarded here a few days ago and they told him to apply for compensation. His face is burnt beyond recognition. One eye removed, the other practically blind. Legs burnt, arms burnt, thumbs and some fingers amputated. Of course they have the whole history on the [medical] board papers. He has very little to live for poor boy, but we are doing everything possible believe me.

Yours sincerely,

Sister Agnes

Feb 20th

[Sister Agnes and her sister set up the hospital for officers in their house. It is now – as a hospital for ex-service personnel – named in her honour]

In 1917, a house in Sidcup, Kent, was turned over to the treatment of facially-wounded men like Lumley. Harold Gillies, an ear, nose and throat surgeon who had become interested in facial surgery, had managed to set up a plastic surgery ward at the Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot, but its inadequacy in the face of rising casualties required a larger site. Over the next four years, the hospital, which with its convalescent satellites had around 1000 beds, was home to over 5000 servicemen from across the Empire. Lumley was one of those men.

A ward at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, Christmas 1917.  [(c) Gillies Archive]

An excellent wikipedia entry describes his time there:

Lumley was transferred to Sidcup on 22 September 1917, for reconstructive surgery. The surgical team, led by Harold Gillies, decided to reconstruct Henry’s face using a huge skin graft from his chest. The scar tissue would be removed, and the graft would be stitched into place. Tubed pedicles would be employed to provide further available skin. A similar, though less drastic, procedure had already been successfully carried out on a sailor, William Vicarage, who had received severe cordite burns at the Battle of Jutland.

The operation was performed in stages. The first, on 24 October 1917, outlined the chest graft and created the tubed pedicles at the neck. The second, more major, operation occurred on 15 February 1918. The scar tissue was excised, effectively removing all traces of Lumley’s ‘old’ face, and the graft was stitched into place.

Unfortunately, because of the size of the graft and Lumley’s already weakened state the chest skin was rejected and Henry died of heart failure on 11 March 1918.

March 11th was just short of Lumley’s 26th birthday and twenty months after his accident.  His death led to a change in procedure, with future operations of that scale being done more slowly and in smaller steps, with multiple smaller sections of skin being grafted rather than one large piece.

Lumley is buried in Hampstead cemetery. He joined the Royal Flying Corps to fly and fight for his country, but he never got the chance. The photos of him before and after his crash are a striking reminder of how person’s life can be turned around in an instant by an accident or incident (especially one involving fire), rendering them unrecognisable. Efforts were made to reconstruct Lumley’s face but he did not survive them. His death helped the development of plastic surgery that has restored people’s disfigured bodies over the decades since 1918.


Gillies Archive website – very interesting.

Wikipedia page on Lumley

HR Lumley’s service record at the National Archives

Thanks to Dr Andrew Bamji for his help on details of Gillies and his work.


Posted by on 24 October 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, Places


3 responses to “HR Lumley and pioneering facial surgery

  1. Sarndra

    24 October 2012 at 9:27 am

    Indeed…yayyy for Harold Gillies…what a trooper…and he was New Zealand born 🙂

    Another great plastic surgeon who was also a New Zealander and did amazing work in WW2 was Archibald [Archie] McIndoe [1900-1960] …. my own partners mother had facial surgery performed by him after a car accident in her 20’s in the very early 1950’s.

    Fantastic post and such trauma suffered by so many. Lest we forget those that returned home so drastically changed with huge challenges ahead of them and who had to find ways to cope if they could.


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