Walter Yeo – one of the first people to benefit from advanced plastic surgery

Tijana Radeska
Featured image
A photograph of Walter Yeo, showing his face before (left) and after the tube pedicle flap reconstruction of his face (right).

Walter Ernest O’Neil Yeo was an English sailor and a naval officer who was horrifically wounded during the First World War. Warrant Officer Yeo’s injuries included the loss of upper and lower eyelids. He is thought to have been one of the first people to benefit from advanced plastic surgery, namely a skin flap.

Yeo was wounded on 31 May 1916, during the Battle of Jutland, while manning the guns aboard the battleship HMS Warspite. There is some uncertainty as to where he was first admitted to a hospital, due to the poor documentation. However, he is known to have been admitted to Plymouth Hospital while waiting for a place at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup, Kent, which was granted on 8 August 1917. He was treated by Sir Harold Gillies, the first man to transfer skin from undamaged areas on the body. Gillies’ notes on this case indicate that the main disfigurement was severe ectropion as well as waxy scar tissue of the forehead and nose. Gillies opened a specialist ward at Queen Mary’s Hospital for the treatment of the facially wounded. Walter Yeo is thought to have been one of the first patients to be treated with this newly developed technique; a form of skin transplantation called a ‘tubed pedicle’ flap.

HMS Warspite and Malaya

HMS Warspite and Malaya. Wikipedia/Public Domain

During the long process of surgery, a ‘mask’ of skin was transplanted across Yeo’s face and eyes, including new eyelids. The operation to replace the skin of the midface and forehead took place in multiple stages. The first stage was the outlining of the graft as well as placement of a stent to contour for the nasal dorsum on 12 November 1917. Five days after the operation, a serious infection was noted as well as complications with the stent, requiring surgical intervention. On 30 November, the second stage of the surgery was performed, which consisted of excision of the scar tissue of the face and transfer of the graft. Again, post-operative infection was a major complication. Gillies described the flap as “floating in pus at one point”, and extensive care was required to salvage most of the tissue. In January 1918, the pedicles were returned to the chest with the surgery deemed a success. Minor revisions were performed in the following months to improve the aesthetics of the graft. By July 1919, he was found to be fit for active service again and was recorded as having completed courses in September 1919. He underwent a further operation in August 1921, after which his disfigurement was recorded as ‘improved, but still severe’, and he was recommended for medical discharge, which took place on 15 December 1921. Walter later received further treatment for a corneal ulcer at the Royal Naval Hospital in Plymouth in 1938.

Frognal House, formerly Queen Mary's Hospital, in 2002. By Eltharian at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19988561

Frognal House, formerly Queen Mary’s Hospital, in 2002. Source by Eltharian

Walter married Ada Edwards in 1914 and had two daughters with her: Lilian Evelyn Yeo, born 21 October 1914, and Doreen Y. Yeo, born in 1919. He died in 1960 in his hometown, Plymouth, where he had spent the majority of his life. He was seventy years old.