A bearded man holds a mask by his face.

World War I Centenary Forum: Masking Devastation

Sarah Eilers will speak at 2 PM ET on April 6 in the NLM Lister Hill Auditorium on “Masking Devastation: Inside Anna Ladd’s Paris Studio” as part of the Library’s World War I Centenary Forum. Circulating Now interviewed her about her work.

Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

Informal portrait.Sarah EilersI’m from Louisiana originally but have lived in the District of Columbia for many years. I oversee the History of Medicine Division’s audiovisuals collection, which consists of thousands of films, mostly 16mm, and many obsolete tape formats.  My job is to preserve the collection, build it out, describe it, provide access to it, and promote it. My typical day would include tasks in support of each one of those objectives (and more!). For example, send a donor a deed of gift, write abstracts, talk with building maintenance about the temperature in our onsite vault, watch a newly captioned film to check for errors, submit that film to the NLM Digital Collections site, upload a screener copy of a title for a patron, open and assess a box of uncatalogued material, and discuss an online collaboration with other film repositories. Well, those are the things I did yesterday. I try not to spend too much time in meetings. And my day flies by.

CN: This week, on the centenary of the U.S. Entry in to World War I, you’ll be giving a presentation titled “Masking Devastation: Inside Anna Ladd’s Paris Studio” highlighting a very rare film from the period.  Tell us a little about it.

SE: Not much is known about the production and distribution of the film, which is called Plastic Reconstruction of Face, but we do know what we’re seeing (which is not always the case). During WWI, a Boston-based sculptor named Anna Coleman Ladd volunteered her services to the Red Cross in Paris to run a studio where she created masks for soldiers who’d suffered severe facial injuries. Some of these soldiers were so disfigured they didn’t want to go home to their families, and they preferred not to even walk down the street because their appearances so disturbed people. Ladd made a plaster cast of the soldier’s face, then tried to add in or correct the missing or injured parts (using a photo if she had one, or guessing if she didn’t). She then made a thinner copper mask to cover just the injured area. She used fine metal threads for eyelashes, painted the masks a matching skin tone, etc.  As far as provenance, the film was made around 1918, and NLM received it in 1992 from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. We don’t know who shot it, or if there is additional footage somewhere. This is just a 5 minute fragment, but I’ve not found anything more.

CN: What can this film tell us about the history of medicine in WWI?

SE: As always, war moves medicine forward, yet it would be some time before these types of facial injuries could be surgically remedied. The nature of trench warfare led to this type of bodily damage, because soldiers would pop their heads up out of the trench, thinking they’d be safe for a millisecond. Most of the men who came to Anna Ladd’s studio had been through multiple surgeries, and while some function might be restored or appearance improved, in the end covering the injury was often the only option left.  There were, of course, considerable advances in facial surgery, burn treatment, infection control, splinting, and other areas as a result of WWI traumas.

CN: Moving pictures were still quite new but expanding very rapidly. Did this new medium serve the war effort? And what effect did the war have on the international film industry? 

SE: Well, it was the first filmed war, though I think few complete movies survive. One documentary that does,  On the Firing Line with the Germans, was just restored by the Library of Congress. It was made by an American before the U.S. entered the war. The conflict did change the film industry, from what I’ve read. French cinema rather crumbled, while Germany’s UFA (Universum Film-Aktien) production company, which resulted from a government order to consolidate the film industry in 1917, grew into a technologically advanced behemoth. But, it was really Hollywood that dominated after the war, and in the 1920s began releasing pictures about the conflict, including the one we all know, All Quiet on the Western Front.

The World War I Centenary Forum presentation is part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All lectures are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed on Twitter about the centenary at #WW1 and the lecture series  at #NLMHistTalk.

Over the next two years, Circulating Now will periodically publish posts featuring NLM collections that illuminate the medical history of The Great War.


  1. it was really Hollywood that dominated after the war, and in the 1920s began releasing pictures about the conflict, including the one we all know, All Quiet on the Western Front.

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