Sunday, November 18, 2018

Anna Coleman Ladd

By Nancy J. Farrier
WWI Artillery
Wikimedia Commons

World War I changed the way wars were fought. For the first time, large artillery came into play and soldiers fought in trenches. This caused injuries of such a devastating nature that doctors weren’t prepared to help the injured. They didn’t know what to do with the many men who survived with debilitating injuries, especially those of a cosmetic nature. Soldiers in the trenches couldn’t seem to understand that if they poked their heads up to look and an automatic weapon fired across the landscape they wouldn’t be able to duck out of the way in time.

At that time of the war, plastic surgery was a newer field. The doctors who were learning this type of reconstruction only worked on a certain area such as the nose, but were now being called on to replace half a face that had been disfigured by gunfire. The men who needed the work done were treated as outcasts because of the horrible damage done to them.

Anna Coleman Ladd
Wikimedia Commons
One of the doctors put out a call for an artist who could do sculpture to help work with these soldiers. This is where Anna Coleman Ladd came into the story. Anna grew up in the U.S, as a socialite. She studied overseas in Rome and Paris. She loved art and doing sculpture was her passion. At the time of WWI, she was considered a mediocre artist, not among the greats.

Anna married Maynard Ladd, a doctor in Boston, who was later appointed to a position with the Red Cross and sent overseas. Anna heard about Frances Derwent Wood who founded a program to help with facial reconstruction for the soldiers. Anna met with him and opened her own office, the Studio for Portrait Masks, in Paris. Her work was sponsored by the Red Cross.

She did not treat soldiers straight from the battlefield. They had to be treated for months until they were healed enough to endure the process of making the mask. Some of the men convalesced in England at a special facial hospital. Mirrors were outlawed there. When the men were well enough to go outside, they sat on special benches that were painted blue. People passing by knew not to look because the person sitting there would be upsetting to look at. 

When a soldier healed enough to come to Anna, she first made a plaster cast of
Anna and Soldier
Wikimedia Commons
his face. This process detailed every feature, the eye socket with the missing eye, the nose partially missing, etc. Needless to say, this wasn’t a pleasant process to sit through. The cast had to be exact and had to show every feature, which made it suffocating to sit through. It took Anna a month of concentrated effort to make one mask.

The mask would then be made of a thin sheet of copper, only one thirty-second of an inch thick. When completed the mask would be held on by a pair of spectacles. Getting the flesh tone right proved challenging. The face looks different in different lights and each person has a different skin tone. For the masks Anna made, she painted them while they were on the soldier’s face in order to match the tone as much as possible. She also used real hair for the eyebrows and mustache. 

French Soldier with/without mask made by Ladd
Wikimedia Commons
The masks were not perfect. They had no ability to change expressions so no matter how lifelike they were made, they still were frozen in place. Also, there was still the challenge of eating and of talking. Many of the soldiers were also injured in ways that made these simple tasks very difficult. 

Anna recalled the gratitude of the soldiers she helped and the beautiful notes she would receive from these disfigured men who were once again able to walk about in public. One soldier wrote, “Thanks to you, I will have a home.” He went on to say that the woman he loved did not find him repulsive now, although she had a right to do so.

Anna and her team made 185 masks. Her colleague, who worked in a hospital in Paris, made masks too but it isn’t known how many he made. That sounds like a lot of masks to complete until you realize that there were an estimated 20,000 facial casualties in the war. Many of those who didn’t receive masks lived in special housing provided for them.

Anna and her husband returned to the U.S. in 1919. In 1932, she was awarded
Triton Babies by
Anna Coleman Ladd
Wikimedia Commons
the Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for her work with the soldiers. She continued to sculpt bronzes until she died at the age of 60. 

This story was so sad to me. I can’t imagine being one of these unfortunate men in a time when little was known about plastic surgery. How wonderful that Anna was able to help some of them. Have you ever heard of Anna Coleman Ladd? Have you ever seen one of her sculptures? This one is in the Boston Public Garden. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. Nancy is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Literary Agency. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website:


  1. Fascinating article. Yes, I had heard of Anna. But you went into much more detail of hervlife and work. The other information I saw was focused on the soldiers. She did quite a good job with what tools were available at the time. Thanks for the post.

  2. How very interesting! I had never heard of Anna but what a great work she did. Thank you for sharing this story, Nancy.

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Melanie. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog.

  3. Nancy, what an incredibly fascinating account. And what a generous and compassionate woman Anna was.

  4. I've never heard of her. What a gift! Thank you for telling her story!