Pioneers in Plastic Surgery – Arthur Rainsford Mowlem (1902–1986)


When you think of plastic surgery, you may consider it a relatively new field. It’s actually been around longer than you may think.

Although plastic surgery has existed in some form for millennia, casualties from World War I and II in particular created a new demand for reconstructive surgery.

Born in New Zealand in 1902, Arthur Rainsford Mowlem, was the youngest of four well-known British plastic surgeons who practiced in between the world wars.

The Journey to Medicine

Mowlem started out studying law, but later changed to medicine. In 1924, he undertook house officer appointments in Auckland Hospital before going into general practice. Once he decided to take the surgical route, he worked his passage to England around Cape Horn as a ship’s surgeon.

He studied at the Middlesex Hospital for the primary Fellowship, completed his house surgeon’s appointment in Greenwich, then passed the final Fellowship of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons in 1929. Throughout the war years, he would treat many victims of air raids. He also participated in early trials of penicillin.

Interestingly, when he served as a resident surgical officer at Queen Mary’s Stratford, he met with the then Prince of Wales and, being a heavy smoker, showed him where to smoke cigarettes.

Shifting Gears

Mowlem was planning to return to New Zealand to take an orthopedic post in Auckland, but destiny took him to Hammersmith Hospital instead. It was there that he met Sir Harold Gillies who had been given four beds for plastic surgery. Mowlem was fascinated by the potential of this burgeoning field. And Gillies noticed.

Along with P.T. Kilner and A.H. McIndoe, Gillies was part of a group of pioneering surgeons. Mowlem moved with Gillies to a larger unit at St. James Hospital. With the addition of Mowlem, the quartet would become known as the “Big Four.”

The two first full-blown medical publications committed specifically to plastic, reconstructive, and aesthetic surgery were the Revue de Chirurgie Plastique and the Revue de Chirurgie Structive. The publication existed from 1931- 1938 and the four surgeons were often cited.

By 1940, Mowlem served as a professor who lectured on the use of iliac chips from bone grafting in patients with mandibular defects. He was considered an outstanding teacher who would go on to train juniors in plastic surgery techniques.

1950s and Beyond

After the war, he was twice President of the British Association of Plastic Surgeons and went on to serve as President of the Second International Congress of Plastic Surgeons. He was given an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Trinity College, Hartford, USA, and an honorary Fellowship of the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons.

His primary interest in reconstructive surgery to repair unsightly defects (resulting particularly from the treatment of malignant disease) continued until his retirement in 1962. Despite his significant contributions, he would never receive British honors.

What Can Plastic Surgery Do For You?

The legacy of Rainsford Mowlem lives on in the field of plastic surgery. His contributions made a major difference in how procedures are performed today.

Of course, plastic surgery has come a long way since then. So if you’re considering any sort of plastic surgery, contact us today to set up your free consultation.

We look forward to hearing from you!