Some people spend a lifetime wondering what their purpose in life is, and before they know it, their life is over. It was 82 years ago this week that Anna Coleman Ladd died at age 61 on June 3, 1939. But the amazing emotional and physical impact she had on the lives of hundreds of people – all of whom are now long forgotten – never should be. For she demonstrated that one person truly can make a difference, in this case helping World War I veterans who felt utterly hopeless. It is only appropriate she passed so close to Memorial Day, a day we remember our fallen warriors, as some may continue to remember her contributions as well.
Born in the U.S. in 1878 and educated in Europe, Ladd studied sculpture in Paris and Rome. Marrying a medical doctor in England before returning to the U.S. with him prior to World War I, not only had she become a distinguished portrait artist and sculptor but an author of books and plays as well.
When America’s involvement in World War I began, Ladd’s husband went overseas with the American Red Cross. Ladd remained at home but was eager to help the war effort in any way possible. Despite her skills as a writer, artist and sculptor, these really were not skills readily lending themselves to helping our men in uniform. But she quickly was able to find her niche.
Ladd learned about the work of Francis Derwent Wood in London who had developed a talent for making lifelike masks – a talent he mastered after observing some of the worst wounds soldiers were suffering on the battlefield, resulting in facial disfigurement. To have been terribly wounded, possibly near death, only to be nursed back to health to discover, for the rest of their life, they would have to bear such a horrible facial wound, was a terrible price to pay for having served one’s country. Of all possible wounds, these were considered the most traumatic because of the psychological stress of the altered appearance. Some faces were so badly distorted, they were barely recognizable.
Ladd contacted Wood, and together the two improved upon mask making techniques. She then received permission to go to France to join the Red Cross and work directly with soldiers there suffering from such nightmarish facial wounds. She also had to obtain authorization from Gen. John. J. Pershing – commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front – as it was forbidden for both spouses to serve in the war zone together. Recognizing the magic wand Ladd could provide in bringing joy to the faces of soldiers, some of whom even lacked the ability to render much of a smile, Pershing did not hesitate to grant approval.
In Paris, Ladd founded the “Studio for Portrait-Masks,” which ended up providing hundreds of masks personally fitted to address a soldier’s unique wound. Disfigurements included exposed parts of the skull or jawbone, missing or mangled noses, ears, eyes, etc., but Ladd took on the challenge of fitting each patient with a mask, making it virtually impossible to detect what was hidden underneath. The Red Cross easily afforded the masks because Ladd never charged for her services.
Given a picture of the soldier prior to his wound, Ladd would sculpt a mask to copy it as close as possible, then fitting it to the soldier’s post-wound plaster cast. She worked on the mask until satisfied soldiers excitedly exclaimed, “It is me!” She even painted each mask to match the skin tone of the wearer and, if a moustache was desired, she would accommodate that wish as well. Before and after photographs of mask recipients demonstrated just how talented Ladd was in magically making the worst of facial wounds disappear.
We will never know how many of those she helped were saved from a life of depression or public embarrassment due to her talents, but it is safe to assume she restored normality to the lives of those who otherwise would have longed for life to end, instead helping them reenter society. Many, who had only felt comfortable walking the streets after wrapping their heads in bandages, were now able to do so proudly without having to hide.
Officially, Memorial Day was only 10 years old when Ladd was born – but the difference she made in the lives of World War I veterans suffering from horrible facial disfigurements entitles her to be remembered by all on the day set aside for remembering those who gave their all for country.
Many of us talk the talk about making a difference in life, about doing good or about having a positive impact on the lives of others. But if the test for doing so is the number of people whose lives are improved over the long term by our actions, Ladd certainly walked the walk, giving wings to the belief one person can, indeed, make a difference. Ladd’s purpose in life was bringing an angel’s touch to the ugly face of war.
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