In May 1884 The Lancet’s Paris correspondent reported the following:
There is to be seen at Landrecies, in the Department of the North, an invalid artillery soldier, who was wounded in the late Franco-German War, when he was horribly mutilated by the bursting of a Prussian shell. The man’s face was literally blown off, including both eyes, there being left behind some scanty remnants of the osseous and muscular systems. The skull, which is well covered with hair, was left intact, so that the man had a most hideous and ghastly appearance.
An American newspaper, relishing the gory detail, reported that ‘he had no face, not even a forehead, and only a portion of his chin. All the rest – eyes, nose, teeth, cheek bones and flesh – had been cut away as if some one had scooped a cocoa-nut into the shape of a half moon.’
This disfigurement has been completely concealed by a mask, which was made for him under the direction of the principal medical officer of Val de Grace, in Paris, whither he had been transferred from the field ambulance. The mask was constructed by a surgeon-dentist named Delalain. It includes a false palate and a complete set of false teeth; and it is so perfect that the functions of respiration and mastication, which were necessarily imperfectly performed, are almost completely restored to their normal condition, and the voice, which was rather husky, has resumed its natural tone. The man speaks distinctly, the sense of smell, which had entirely disappeared, has returned, and he can even play the flute.
Play the flute? Impressive.
He wears two false eyes, simply to fill up the cavities of the orbits, for the parts representing the eyelids in the mask are closed. In fact, the mask is so well adapted to what remains of the real face as to be considered one of the finest specimens of the prosthetic art that could be devised.
Some time after this article was written he destroyed his wax mask during an episode of delirium caused by ‘brain fever’. After a public appeal, a replacement was made from platinum (less expensive then than it is today); every year an artist was sent to the village where he lived to touch up the facial features to keep him looking pristine.
The man himself, whose name is Moreau, and who is in perfect health, is looked upon as a living curiosity, and travellers go a good deal out of their way to see him. His face, or rather his mask, is of course without any expression, but his special senses, particularly that of touch, are extremely developed, and he goes by the sobriquet of “l’homme à la tête de cire”.
‘The man with the wax face’.
He wears the military Cross of Honour, and delights to talk about what he went through during the war. To add to his meagre pension he sells a small pamphlet containing a full description of his wounds, and of the apparatus that has been so skilfully devised as to render him at least presentable to his fellow creatures.
His case was not unique. The collection of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London contains a remarkable facial prosthesis (you’ll find images here) constructed for William Veale (below), who was grievously wounded in a mining accident in 1894. Facial surgery to treat such drastic injuries would not become a viable option until the giant strides made in the First World War – but at least these unfortunate patients were able to live a relatively normal life.