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Biographical entry Gillies, Sir Harold Delf (1882 - 1960)

Kt 1930; CBE 1920; MRCS 13 February 1908; FRCS 8 December 1910; LRCP 1908; Hon FACS; Hon FRACS; Commander, Order of the Danebrog 1924; Commander, Order of St Olav, Norway 1948.

17 June 1882
Dunedin, New Zealand
10 September 1960
Plastic surgeon


Born at Dunedin, New Zealand, on 17 June 1882, he came of a distinguished family. His father Robert Gillies was a land agent and a member of the New Zealand House of Representatives, and his mother was Emily Street from Birtley, near Guildford. Edward Lear, the artist and nonsense-verse write, was his great-uncle, and Sir Archibald McIndoe, who succeeded him as a leader in plastic surgery, was his cousin. Educated at Wanganui College, where he was captain of cricket, he went up to Caius College, Cambridge. There he distinguished himself as a sportsman, rowing in the Boat Race of 1904 and playing golf for the University for three years. He continued his medical training at St Bartholomew's, was awarded the Luther Holden Scholarship, qualified in 1908 and obtained the FRCS in 1910. After holding house appointments at Bart's he developed an interest in otolaryngology. For some years he worked as assistant to Sir Milsom Rees and became surgeon to the Ear Nose and Throat Department at the Prince of Wales's General Hospital, Tottenham and pathologist at the Throat Hospital, Golden Square.

Then came the 1914-18 war which caused the mutilation and disfigurement of so many men and showed Gillies clearly where his genius lay. Early in the war he joined the RAMC and whilst on leave in Paris he met Hippolyte Morestin, a pioneer in maxilla-facial surgery. Gillies immediately realised the need to start special treatment of facial wounds and through the force of his conviction and personality he managed to persuade the War Office to allow him to set up a unit at Aldershot. At this time he knew little of the specialty, but his own surgical skill, artistic temperament, endless patience and tremendous confidence carried him through. He pressed for a hospital of his own and with the help of Sir William Arbuthnot Lane the Red Cross was persuaded to build a hutted hospital at Sidcup. This soon became the largest centre of its kind in the world. During this time Gillies discovered independently the potentialities and varied applications of the skin tubed pedicle. Being a painter himself, plastic surgery as practised by Gillies became an art and he often called upon the talents of artists to help him. F Derwent Wood RA, a sculptor, collaborated with Gillies in cases when the manipulation of living tissues needed to be supplemented with modelling in some artificial substance such as wax. When Gillies was in need of a good draughtsman in 1915 he was delighted to meet Henry Tonks FRCS, who had given up surgery to become a professional artist and was later Director of the Slade School. On the outbreak of war Tonks volunteered to serve in any useful capacity and Gillies found him at Aldershot waiting for a suitable job. He painted portraits of men with facial injuries and helped to design their repair. These paintings were deposited in the War Collection at the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

After the war Gillies saw that this new specialty was still necessary in peace-time and by 1920 he had established it in Britain. He set up in private practice, was elected to the staff of St Bartholomew's and was appointed consultant in plastic surgery to the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the Queen Alexandra Military Hospital, St Andrew's Hospital, Dollis Hill, St James's Hospital, Balham, the North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary, the London County Council, and the ministries of Health and of Pensions. At the same time his international reputation grew and he became an honoured guest in many countries. He was appointed OBE in 1919 and CBE in1920, and was knighted in 1930.

Gillies was a splendid lecturer and was much in demand at home and abroad. He was a superb teacher and his pre-operative planning clinics were conducted with infinite patience. In these the use of exact patterns of flap and pedicle and the marking of the skin of the exact site and length of incision all made a deep impact.

The outbreak of war in 1939 made even greater demands on Gillies. He organised plastic surgical units in different parts of the country and personally supervised the largest unit at Park Prewett Hospital, Basingstoke. By spending hundreds of hours in the theatre repairing shattered faces he restored the morale of thousands. Shortly after the war Gillies formed the British Association of Plastic Surgeons of which he was the first president. He was also president of the International Society of Plastic Surgeons. He continued to train men from all over the world and to travel widely himself teaching, operating and advising. His impressions were recorded in his paintings which were seen at the Royal Society of Medicine and later at two one-man exhibitions in London.

In 1920 Gillies's book Plastic Surgery of the Face was published, which remained the leading textbook in its field until the appearance in 1957 of the The Principles and Art of Plastic Surgery, written with Dr Ralph Millard. This book reflects Gillies' personality, for it is a brilliant exposition of the subject and at the same time an entertaining, vivid account of his work, superbly illustrated in colour.

In spite of the claims of his professional life Gillies for many years managed to maintain his position in the world of golf. He played for England against Scotland in 1908, 1925 and 1926 and won the St George's Grand Challenge Cup in 1913. He was also a highly skilled fly-fisherman.

Gillies married Kathleen Margaret Jackson in 1911 and they had two sons and two daughters. During the second world war their elder son, Flying Officer John Arthur Gillies, RAAF, was a prisoner in Germany. Lady Gillies died on 14 May 1957. His second wife was Marjorie E Clayton, who had been for many years his personal assistant.

He died on 10 September 1960 at the age of 78. The British Association of Plastic Surgeons created a fund in his memory to promote education and research in plastic surgery.


Plastic surgery of the face, 1920
The principles and art of plastic surgery, with Ralph Millard. 2 vols 1957

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 12 September 1960 pp 14 a-b with portrait and appreciation by PC and 15 September 1960 p 18c by Hubert Wellington; Ann Roy Coll Surg Engl 1960, 27, 364-366 with portrait and appreciation by RM; Brit med J 1960, 2, 866-867 with portrait and appreciations by Rainsford Mowlem and JCN, p 948 by TPK and Patrick Clarkson, p 1387 by Denis Sugrue of Dublin, p 1606 by Theodore Phillips, of Little, Brown and Co, publishers of Gillies' magnum opus; Lancet 1960, 2, 655, with portrait and appreciations by WKF and CRMcL, and p 771 by RER; Arch Otolaryngol (Chicago) 1966, 83, 372-378 by Sir Victor Negus with portraits].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England