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Haverford History: Virginia McCall's WWII Art Advanced the Field of Plastic Surgery at Valley Forge General Hospital

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The human body has been called a work of art—so perhaps it was appropriate that an artist should help put broken ones back together.

Haverford’s Virginia Armitage McCall spent the 1940s treating World War II soldiers delivered to the plastic surgery unit of Valley Forge General Hospital.

A volunteer, McCall made plaster casts of damaged faces, which helped guide surgeons through what were often multiple surgeries extending over months, even years. She made and painted plastic hands, feet and fingers that served as temporary psychological crutches for men waiting for prostheses. McCall also taught art classes for patients—a diversion for many and life changing for a few.

Artist friends accustomed to seeing McCall’s landscapes and still-lifes in galleries and shows called these her “years of silence.” McCall dismissed that. “Human life seems more important than works of art at the moment,” she told the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1947.

Born in Philadelphia and raised on Millbrook Farm in Haverford, McCall was the daughter of banker William McCall and his wife, Irva, and a descendant of Peter McCall, mayor of Philadelphia in the 1840s. She attended private schools, focusing on art and literature, and in 1926, began studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. “I hope to use my art as a mode of expression and, if possible, also as a support,” she wrote on her application.

McCall turned out to be a top student. In 1931, she won the school’s Cresson scholarship, which subsidizes travel and study abroad, followed by its Mary Smith Prize for Philadelphia women artists in 1932. McCall subsequently exhibited at the Whitney Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, the Paris Salon (a big deal in art circles) and at international exhibitions in Chicago and San Francisco. Her work was seen at regional exhibitions up and down the East Coast in the 1930s. It also ended up in the private collections of many high-profile local art lovers, including R. Sturgis Ingersoll, president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, a genuine Swiss baron who once lived in Devon.

Then came the war.

In early 1942, probably in the first flush of post-Pearl Harbor patriotism, Virginia McCall volunteered for the Motor Corps at Tilton General Hospital in Fort Dix, N.J. Her initial assignment was to train ambulance drivers. She’d wanted to serve abroad, but had the responsibility of caring for a sick relative (perhaps a parent). “It broke my heart when I found I could not go overseas,” she wrote in 1947. “I wanted desperately to share the hardships and the dangers, and could not bear the feeling of living in such security when the price was the lives of others.”
 

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McCall’s qualifications to train ambulance drivers are unknown, but apparently she could at least drive a vehicle—something less common among women back then. In any case, someone soon asked her to teach painting, drawing and woodcutting to men confined to their beds. An account of her experience described this early work as an experiment. In any event, the effort was considered a success, and she was asked to devote more time to it. She later continued this work at Valley Forge. It was closer her home, so she probably didn’t hesitate.

Built specifically to care for World War II wounded, Valley Forge General Hospital opened in February 1943 after 10 months of construction costing $10 million. Eventually, it became the largest military hospital in the United States, with more than 3,000 patients and a staff of 265 officers and nurses. There were more than 100 buildings—mostly two stories, all made of red brick and connected by so many corridors that visitors and newcomers frequently got lost. The hospital closed in 1975; the site is now occupied by Valley Forge Christian College.

During World War II, Valley Forge General Hospital gained international recognition for its work in plastic and eye surgery. Its staff surgeons were already well-known names in their field. In command was Dr. James Barrett Brown of St. Louis, who pioneered the split-thickness skin graft, a concept he borrowed from the leather industry. Also on board was Dr. Bradford Cannon, who later established plastic surgery as a recognized specialty in Boston, where he pioneered a program to treat children for cleft lips. Dr. Joseph Murray—who specialized in reconstructing hands and faces—later won a Nobel Prize for conducting the first successful organ transplant.

McCall described the atmosphere at Valley Forge as very different from that of a civilian hospital. “Our endless halls are filled with young men coming and going,” she said in 1947. “There is a great deal of laughter. The wit and humor is some of the best I have heard.”

Under military procedure, wounded soldiers were assigned to the hospital, and couldn’t be discharged until they’d finished recuperation. Ray Pierre, a Philadelphia Bulletin reporter who toured the facility, described passing a large painting of George Washington kneeling in the snow to pray during the 1777-78 encampment. “The general is praying for his discharge,” quipped one of the men. “Stock joke around here.”

Surgery, meanwhile, went on all day long. “From 8:30 a.m. until sometimes 4:30 p.m., the surgeons are operating,” said McCall. “As soon as one operation is over and our patient is wheeled out, the door opens and another young wounded man is wheeled in. There are 19-21 operations every day. Over 13,000 operations have been performed in plastic surgery alone. The surgeons never bother to think of lunch. They go back to their wards, interview rows of patients and make some critical dressings before the day ends—and this day after day for three years or more.”

McCall began by teaching painting to men with neuropsychiatric disorders—what some called shell shock. During the Tunisian campaign in early 1943, up to 34 percent of all battle-related disorders were labeled neuropsychiatric. Standard treatment at field hospitals, according to the American Journal of Public Health, was an injection of sodium pentothal to produce a dream state during which a patient re-experienced his trauma, thereby loosening its hold on the mind. Many soldiers recovered in field hospitals. Those who didn’t came to places like Valley Forge.
 

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“By arousing their interest in painting [and] persuading them to help in work on cheerful murals,” read McCall’s 1946 award, “(she) has often succeeded in quieting shattered nerves, restoring peace and serenity to tortured minds. This work has often been the first step back to mental health, and many of these patients have been discharged as normal.”

Today, this is referred to as art therapy, a recognized mental health technique.

Pierre described walking into a studio cluttered with easels and paintings, where G.I.s showed off their work. “I was just lying in bed one day when Miss McCall came in and left me some scrapbooks and pencils,” said Staff Sgt. John Anthony of Haverhill, Mass., who’d spent three years in hospitals after shrapnel injuries. “She told me to draw everything and anything. As I went along, I got more interested. Now, she’s encouraging me to do oils. It certainly takes your mind off things.”

According to McCall, the men wanted three primary things from an art teacher: expertise; honesty; and to refrain from “smearing over their paintings or drawing over their designs to illustrate a point.” This was commonly done at PAFA, but it really annoyed the men.

Some became serious: Wes Wagner of Wheeling, W.Va., arrived at the hospital with a left arm shredded in live-fire training. The arm never fully healed, but Wagner went on to PAFA and became an art professor at Bethany College.

As for the masks, they were requested by Brown. The doctor thought they would be better references from which to reconstruct faces than photographs. Surgeons, after all, work in 3-D. This task required that McCall work with a sergeant of the Third Infantry Division who was hit by shell fragments in Italy in 1943. In medical jargon, his condition was described this way: “Severe wound of face with loss of body of the mandible bilaterally, the lower lip and chin and skin of the upper neck.” Translation: Calabrese’s lower jaw had been blown away.

Another sergeant had been in a tank that was hit by a German bazooka in March 1945. His surgical analysis: “Exten-sive destruction of the face with total loss of nose, skin of both cheeks, upper lip, part of lower lip, part of both maxillae (upper jaw) and with multiple fractures of the lower jaw. Severe damage to both eyes, but travel vision still present.”

Objectively, McCall’s role was simple: Before each surgery, she covered men’s faces with wet Plaster of Paris, let it harden for seven to 10 minutes and then painted the casts in lifelike colors. Eventually, dozens of these masks hung on the walls of her workroom.

Today, about three dozen are in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Md. “The door is always open in my room, and the men come in and out and discuss the masks,” she said. “A man has stood in front of his own mask and said, ‘I don’t see how I’m alive, Miss McCall.’”

According to Dorothy Crawford, the Red Cross official who nominated McCall for the Gimbel Award, “The men worship Miss McCall. She has done more, for more men, than any other one person.”

McCall would’ve protested that.

“I honestly do not believe that I, myself, have done anything worthy of award,” she said. “All that I have consciously done is to serve the men who have offered their lives so that I might live.”

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