The history of plastic surgery dates back to 1917 when a young British naval officer named Walter Ernest O’Neil Yeo received what it believed to have been the first ever skin graft. Yeo, a sailor during World War I, primarily grew up in Plymouth, England and was raised in a single parent home by his mother, Rhoda. Yeo joined the British Royal Navy at age 12 as a Bugler for a number of years before later serving as Leading Seaman, a Petty Officer and finally a Warrant Officer. However, during the Battle of Jutland—a naval battle between Britain and Germany in the North Sea near Denmark—Yeo was badly injured while manning firearms aboard the HMS Warspite. Due to the severity of his injuries, which disfigured most of his face, he was admitted into Plymouth Hospital while he awaited entry to Queen’s Mary Hospital where a team of better skilled surgeons and doctors were available to operate on him.
The extent of Yeo’s injuries were substantial. During the battle, Yeo lost all his upper and lower eyelids and therefore could not close his eyes or blink, a source of constant discomfort and distress, aside from painful and extremely visible scarring. Once admitted into Queen Mary’s Hospital, Yeo was operated on by Sir Harold Gillies, who is largely known as the first doctor to make use of skin grafts, or the use of sections of undamaged skin elsewhere on the body to repair damaged areas of the skin. Yeo is believed to be the first patient to undergo such skin grafting.
During the lengthy process of Yeo’s skin transformation, a mask of skin was laid across Yeo’s face and eyes which created material for new eyelids. Yeo would undergo one additional facial operation to better fit the mask, and while his medical diagnosis was listed as significantly improved yet still severely disfigured, he continued to live a normal life until his death at the age of 50 of natural causes.