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Rainsford Mowlem (1902-1986): An unsung father of reconstructive surgery



Very little has been documented about the contribution of Rainsford Mowlem to plastic and reconstructive surgery, a well-respected and innovative surgeon. His era was dominated by key figureheads such as Sir Harold Gillies and Sir Archibald McIndoe, pioneers of the specialty during the pre- and post-war period. This short article is a commemoration of his work to appreciate the contribution to an ever evolving specialty.
Rainsford Mowlem (19021986): an unsung father
of reconstructive surgery
Kavit Amin
Received: 16 February 2011 / Accepted: 19 May 2011 /Published online: 8 June 2011
#Springer-Verlag 2011
Abstract Very little has been documented about the
contribution of Rainsford Mowlem to plastic and recon-
structive surgery, a well-respected and innovative surgeon.
His era was dominated by key figureheads such as Sir
Harold Gillies and Sir Archibald McIndoe, pioneers of the
specialty during the pre- and post-war period. This short
article is a commemoration of his work to appreciate the
contribution to an ever evolving specialty.
Keywords Rainsford Mowlem .Gillies .Surgery
The impact of two world wars have had on the develop-
ment of plastic surgery has been widely documented.
Though a disastrous, catastrophic consequence on human
lives, they played a vital role in the evolution and
understanding of the principles of both plastic and
maxillofacial surgery. This article is a historical apprecia-
tion of a pioneer in modern day plastic surgery in Britain,
Rainsford Mowlem, respected and admired by colleagues
and patients, he still remains less acknowledged compared
with key figureheads such as Sir Harold Gillies and Sir
Archibald McIndoe, other than by those well versed in
surgical history. Thomas Pomfret Kilner and Arthur Rainsford
Mowlem (19021986) together with Gillies and McIndoe
made the big four. They developed specialized units that
would become world renowned, attracting visits from
colleagues known worldwide to embrace current advances in
reconstructive surgery. Examples include developments in
wound healing, burns treatment, transplantation immunology
and development of microsurgical techniques [1]. The
specialty grew from these origins, and this is why they were
known as the famous four founding fathers [2].
Rainsford Mowlem, born in Auckland on 21 December
1902 was described as small build and strong willed,
maintaining a hardworking approach whilst at grammar
school in Auckland [3]. His father, Arthur Manwell
Mowlem, a well-respected judge was a descendant of
Durundas de Moulham, carpenter at Corfe castle, Isle of
Purbeck in Dorset. He acquired a land donated to Moulham
by William the Conqueror for the maintenance of the great
tower [4]. Rainsford Mowlem, like Gillies and McIndoe
was a New Zealand borne graduate studying with McIndoe
at the University of Otago, Dunedin. McIndoe was 1 year
his junior [3]. After graduation in 1924, he completed his
registrar year at Auckland Hospital in 1926, later travelling
to England to embark on further training as a junior doctor.
He worked in general practice in Dorking as a locum with a
view to becoming a general surgeon [5]. Six months later,
he became a house surgeon at the Seamans Hospital,
Greenwich and then went to Woolwich Hospital. After
studying for his Fellowship of the Royal College of
Surgeons (FRCS) at the London Hospital of Anatomy
under Samson Wright for physiology, he became a Resident
Surgical Officer (RSO) at Queen MarysHospitalin
Stratford, London, where he later recieved his FRCS [4].
Ready to return to Auckland with a view to practice
general surgery, he was asked if he would accept a locum at
Hammersmith Hospital to work on the same ward as
Harold Gillies. It was here he observed the work of Harold
Gillies and this deeply fascinated him, and his career
motives changed. He remained as one of five RSOs for
2 years alongside Gillies. Together, he and Gillies moved to
St Jamess Hospital, Balham in 1933. It was here in Balham
that Gillies, McIndoe, Kilner and Mowlem all worked
K. Amin (*)
St. Georges Hospital,
London, UK
Eur J Plast Surg (2012) 35:9799
DOI 10.1007/s00238-011-0603-0
together, Mowlem as an assistant [6]. Four years later, he
became one of the famous quartet lasting until the outbreak
of the Second World War (19391945).
The outlook for war was inevitable. Since the Spanish
Civil War, the British realized that battles in trenches would
be replaced by battles in the air and with Gillies given the
lead role of consulting surgeon to the army, he set up plastic
surgical units around London. He ensured units were
dispersed and purposefully, he avoided large caseloads in
single hospitals. For example, Queen Marys had reduced
patient beds because it was deemed a prime target for enemy
attack upon the route to London [7]. The quartet then split
to take command of their OWN plastic surgery units.
Mowlem took up wards FG1 and FG2 at Hill End Hospital,
St Albans. He was to become the leader of the plastic
surgery and jaw unit [8]. Hill End Hospital was one of four
plastic surgery units within the surrounding region. Other
units included Stoke Mandeville, Park Prewitt at Basing-
stoke and Queen Marys Roehampton. Later, the Canadian
wing at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead was
developed when Archibald McIndoe took charge.
He had been at the helm of Hill End Hospital at the
outbreak of the war in 1939. In an editorial piece for the
British Journal of Plastic Surgery in 1949, Mowlem
expressed the need to eliminate watertight compartments
of specialisation, with the need to disseminate knowledge
in plastic surgery through the use of journals [9]. It was
through this vision that operations involving both soft
tissue and bone would lead to new advances in reconstruc-
tive methods. Mowlem and his team were the first to
introduce pin fixation methods to enable stabilization of
mandibular fractures. Intraosseous pins were drilled into
bone and used in cases where intermaxillary dental fixation
was not deemed appropriate [8]. Regarded as his greatest
contribution to reconstructive surgery, Mowlem was able to
recognise that there was a vast number of mal-unions and
non-unions from injured war soldiers. In 1944, he used
cancellous bone to fill traumatic defects and later published
an article in the Lancet evaluating the results of 75 cases of
cancellous chip bone grafts in the repair of osseous defects
of the jaw. He also harvested iliac crest bone chips for non-
union of tibial fractures with encouraging results. These
chips would range in size measuring roughly 1 ×0.5 ×
0.2 cm. At the time, this was an accomplishment for two
reasons. Firstly, the notion that multiple ossifying surfaces
re-vascularize more rapidly enabling faster tissue and bony
healing [4]. Secondly, infection rates were found to be
lower with this new method [10]. He was subsequently
awarded the Hunterian Professorship in 1940 by the Royal
College of Surgeons of England for this contribution. This
has benefited modern day orthopaedic surgery, with these
techniques still being employed on a regular basis such as
during foot and ankle joint stabilization [11].
He also have a conducted preliminary trials on penicillin.
Hill End Hospital was the only unit requested by Professor
Fleming of trial penicillin. Antibiotics were used to dress
infected wounds and stored in brown powder form,
delivered in milk bottles from Oxford. Small amounts were
dissolved in saline and injected into the patient. A
subsequent reduction in soft tissue infection and osteomy-
elitis was noted. It was Mowlem in 1944 that identified the
anatomical features of the mandible predispose itself to
osteomyelitis when compared with the upper jaw [12].
Residual penicillin powder was added to saline and given to
those with tonsillitis with encouraging results [13].
The Mount Vernon Centre for Plastic Surgery became the
successor of the former Hill End Hospital on 17 March 1953.
Hill End hospital was refurbished into a mental health unit,
the initial purpose of the building when first constructed.
Rainsford Mowlem decided to take his team to Mount Vernon
after debating whether to transfer the unit to Mount Vernon in
Northwood or Archway Hospital. He was swift to associate
the unit with a London teaching hospital in Middlesex. He
was regarded as a dedicated teacher. After negotiation of the
transfer of 30 nursing staff from Barts for 3 months, the
move was complete [8]. It is at Mount Vernon Hospital that
the Rainsford Mowlem Burn Unitremains today [7]. Like
Gillies and McIndoe he was regarded as a keen teacher,
never easy on his trainees continually striving for precision.
Outside the operating room, he was a strong influence in
the founding of the British Association of Plastic Surgeons
(BAPS), and in 1950, he became the fourth president of
BAPS, after Gillies, Kilner and McIndoe, and was then
again re-elected in 1959. Post-war, he became a consultant
for the National Health Service (NHS) and developed his
private practice at the London Clinic. The bureaucratic
nature of the new NHS meant early retirement was the most
appropriate option at the time [14]. He continued to be the
advisor on plastic surgery to the Minister of Health before
retiring. He retired to Spain aged 60, became fluent in
Spanish and accustomed to the Spanish way of life [13].
Regrettably he suffered illness, with lateral column degen-
eration of the cord, making routine tasks such as walking
difficult, though his friends remark that he was still able to
accurately handle his motor vehicle [15]. His friends and
colleagues always held him in high regard. He was
described thus a superb surgeon with a charming,
unassuming, witty personalityas quoted by Dr. Hector
Marino, a friend from Buenos Aires, Argentina, known for
having introduced plastic surgery to South America [16].
Furthermore, Bernard Morgan, his registrar until 1948,
quoted and described him as 'purposeful and one who
could evaluate a problem and supply a definitive solution in
a brief period of time[17]. An avid reader, medical and
non-medical journals alike, he would read the National
Geographic and journals on wider scientific issues. Quoted
98 Eur J Plast Surg (2012) 35:9799
as having a formidable memory for facts and figures and
quantities, he was regarded as having a sharpmental
function until his demise. He died on the 5th of February
1986 at his home in Mijas, Spain at the age of 83. The late
Rainsford Mowlem was the last surviving member of the
big four. Though never reaching the heights of fame as
Gillies or McIndoe, he will always be remembered for his
contribution to plastic surgery in Britain for his innovative
work combined with methodical teaching principles and
sheer humility.
Rainsford Mowlem (19021986)
Conflicts of interest None.
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Eur J Plast Surg (2012) 35:9799 99
Full-text available
Background The First World War saw the evolution and development of three great surgical specialties: orthopaedic surgery, thoracic surgery and plastic/maxillofacial surgery. This last specialty came of age during the carnage of some of the bloodiest battles in history and required a close relationship between plastic surgeon and dentist in the management of facial injuries. Whereas the plastic surgeon dealt with the soft tissues, the hard tissue structures of the teeth and facial bones were managed by dental surgeons who, in turn, worked closely with the dental technicians who manufactured the appliances used to fix and immobilise the facial skeleton. The pioneers of facial plastic surgery included Harold Gillies, Percy Pickerill and later Archibald McIndoe and Rainsford Mowlem – four plastic surgeons with strong New Zealand connections. Purpose This article is an historical appreciation of the development of plastic and maxillofacial surgery especially during the First World War with a particular emphasis on the pioneers of the specialty from New Zealand. Methods and Materials Web-based on-line search engines (PubMed, Medline, and Google), and hand-searches of major journals and texts were performed. For web-based on-line searches the following key words were used to identify relevant publications: world war one, plastic surgery, facial injuries, Gillies. An English language restriction was applied. Conclusion Many of the techniques and procedures currently taught to trainees in plastic and maxillofacial surgery were developed during the First World War and refined in the Second, with pioneers such as Gillies, Pickerill and McIndoe laying the foundations of surgical technique through their hard earned experiences treating war injuries. It is somewhat ironic that four imminent practitioners in plastic and maxillofacial surgery should hail from New Zealand given the small population of the country at the time.
Background. Substitutes for bone graft have been advocated to avoid the potential morbidity associated with harvest of autogenous iliac crest graft. However, no current commercially available graft equals autogenous bone's osteoinductive and osteoconductive qualities. We reviewed our patients' morbidity after harvest of anterior iliac crest bone grafts for procedures involving the foot and ankle. Methods: A computerized analysis of patient records was undertaken to identify all patients who had a harvest of unicortical iliac crest bone graft during a 12-year period. Patients were contacted either by telephone or by mailed questionnaire, inquiring about the postoperative morbidity of the procedure. Medical records were reviewed for any related complications. Results: Of the 169 patients identified, 134 could be contacted. Follow-up ranged from I to 13 years. Not all patients answered every question. At latest follow up, 120 (90%)-patients reported no pain at the bone graft site. Eleven patients complained of persistent residual numbness lateral to the harvest site on the pelvis. Of these 120 patients, 32 (27%) reported that pain at the graft site was greater than the pain at the operative site during the initial postoperative period. No patients had extra hospital days as a result of the bone graft harvest. No deep infections occurred, although 12 (6.7%) of 180 patients had a postoperative hematoma or seroma. Overall, 116 (90%) of 129 patients were satisfied or very satisfied with their bone graft harvest. Conclusions: Harvesting of autogenous iliac crest bone graft provides the optimal bone graft material, yields minimal morbidity, and is an acceptable choice in supplementing surgical procedures on the foot and ankle.
This book covers the history of plastic surgery from the remarkable achievements of such ancient civilizations as India and Egypt, through the classical times of ancient Greece and Rome, up to the revolutionary techniques developed at the end of the Middle Age, the Renaissance and beyond. It reveals how surgical progress has usually relied on a parallel development in anatomy. Coverage first explains how the knowledge of wound healing has changed and influenced plastic surgery. It follows the development of the basic techniques of the specialty, such as skin flaps, the grafting of skin and other tissues throughout the centuries. The book then describes the development of various surgical reconstructive procedures, showing how techniques that are routine today have evolved thanks to the ingenuity of our surgical ancestors. In addition, the book details the birth of Cosmetic Surgery and describes its rapid development as well as stresses the efforts required to overcome prejudices and criticism.