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Harold Gillies

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Sir Harold Gillies
Harold Delf Gillies

(1882-06-17)17 June 1882
Dunedin, New Zealand
Died10 September 1960(1960-09-10) (aged 78)
Marylebone, London, England
Alma materGonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Occupation(s)Otolaryngologist and pioneer plastic surgeon
Years activec. 1910–1960
Known forPlastic surgery, sex reassignment surgery
Kathleen Margaret Jackson
(m. 1911)

Sir Harold Delf Gillies OBE FRCS (17 June 1882 – 10 September 1960) was a New Zealand otolaryngologist and father of modern plastic surgery.[1]

Early life[edit]

Gillies caricatured in Punch's Personalities by George Belcher, 1929

Gillies was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, the son of Member of Parliament in Otago, Robert Gillies.[2] He attended Whanganui Collegiate School and studied medicine at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where despite a stiff elbow sustained sliding down the banisters at home as a child, he was an excellent sportsman. He was a golf blue in 1903, 1904 and 1905 and also a rowing blue, competing in the 1904 Boat Race.[3] In 1910, he acquired a position working as an ENT specialist for Sir Milsom Rees' medical practice.[4] At Caius he became a freemason and rose to be Master of Caius Lodge.


World War I[edit]

Walter Yeo, a sailor injured at the Battle of Jutland, is assumed to be the first person to receive plastic surgery in 1917. The photograph shows him before (left) and after (right) receiving a flap surgery performed by Gillies.

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 oral surgeon Hippolyte Morestin. 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.[5]

The ward rapidly proved inadequate for the increasingly large number of patients in need of treatment, and a new hospital devoted to facial repairs was developed at Sidcup. 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 innovative plastic surgery techniques; more than 11,000 operations were performed on over 5,000 men.[citation needed] 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).

For his war services Gillies was knighted in the 1930 Birthday Honours. Sir William Arbuthnot Lane, 1st Baronet, commented, "Better late than never".[citation needed]

Private practice[edit]

Frognal House, formerly Queen Mary's Hospital, in 2002

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.

In 1930 Gillies invited his cousin, Archibald McIndoe, to join the practice, and also suggested he apply for a post at St Bartholomew's Hospital. This was the point at which McIndoe became committed to plastic surgery, in which he too became pre-eminent.[citation needed]

World War II[edit]

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.[6] His own work continued at Rooksdown House, part of the Park Prewett Hospital, Basingstoke. During this period, and after the war, he trained many doctors from Commonwealth nations in plastic surgery.

Pioneering sex reassignment surgery[edit]

Instead of retiring at the end of the Second World War Gillies had to keep working as he had insufficient savings. [citation needed]

In 1946, he and a colleague carried out one of the first sex reassignment surgeries from female to male on Michael Dillon.[7] In 1951 he and colleagues carried out one of the first modern sex reassignment surgeries, from male to female, on Roberta Cowell,[7] using a flap technique, which became the standard for 40 years.

Gillies made a visit to New Zealand in 1956 after an absence of 51 years.[citation needed]

On his work for Cowell and Dillon, Gillies remarked: “If it gives real happiness, that is the most that any surgeon or medicine can give.”[8]


Gillies suffered a slight cerebral thrombosis at the age of 78 while undertaking a major operation on the damaged leg of an 18-year-old girl on 3 August 1960.[9]

Gillies died on 10 September 1960 at The London Clinic, at 20 Devonshire Place, Marylebone.[9] Despite earning an estimated £30,000 per year between the First and Second World Wars he left an estate of only £21,161.[9]

Personal life[edit]

Gillies married Kathleen Margaret Jackson on 9 November 1911, in London. They had four children. His eldest son, John Gillies, flew Spitfires with No. 92 Squadron RAF in World War II. John was shot down over France on 23 May 1940, and became a POW for the duration of the war. Harold's youngest son Michael Thomas Gillies followed his father into medicine. Actor Daniel Gillies is his descendant.

Gillies was an amateur golfer. He played in the Amateur Championship every year from 1906 to 1931 and represented England in their annual match against Scotland in 1908, 1925, 1926 and 1927. He won the 1913 St. George's Grand Challenge Cup and was runner-up in the 1914 Golf Illustrated Gold Vase, behind Harold Hilton.[10] He won the President's Putter in 1925. His older brother Charles won the 1899 Australian Amateur.

For many years his home was at 71 Frognal, Hampstead, London. A blue plaque on the front of that house now commemorates his life and work. In Cambridge, in 2015, Gonville and Caius College built twelve houses and named the road "Gillies Close" (postcode CB5 8ZD) in his honour.

Selected publications[edit]

  • Gillies HD. Plastic Surgery of the Face. Henry Frowde. 1920, 1983. ISBN 0-906923-08-5
  • Gillies HD, Millard DR. The Principles and Art of Plastic Surgery. Butterworth. 1958.



  1. ^ "Walter Ernest O'Neil Yeo – One of the first people to undergo Plastic Surgery". The Yeo Society. 28 August 2008.
  2. ^ Wright-St Clair, Rex. "Gillies, Harold Delf". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 31 January 2021.
  3. ^ McInnis, Riley (31 May 2022). "The Embryo Project Encyclopedia". Harold Delf Gillies (1882-1960).
  4. ^ Fitzharris, Lindsey (2022). The facemaker : a visionary surgeon's battle to mend the disfigured soldiers of World War I (First ed.). New York. ISBN 978-0-374-71966-1. OCLC 1317719622.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  5. ^ The birth of plastic surgery National Army Museum website
  6. ^ "Stewart Harrison". The Daily Telegraph. London. 7 July 2011. Retrieved 26 March 2019.
  7. ^ a b Mary Roach (18 March 2007). "Girls Will Be Boys". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 March 2007.
  8. ^ "Transgender Pioneers: Roberta Cowell, Michael Dillon and Harold Gillies - Thackray Museum of Medicine". thackraymuseum.co.uk. Retrieved 28 May 2024.
  9. ^ a b c Meikle. Page 196.
  10. ^ "Sir Harold Gillies". The Times. 12 September 1960. p. 14.


External videos
video icon Q&A interview with Leslie Fitzharris on The Facemaker, 11 July 2022, C-SPAN

External links[edit]