Mother’s Hero: Arthur Rainsford Mowlem

When I published my article on ‘The Man Who Never Was’, the story of Operation Mincemeat, a year ago, I hadn’t realised that a film was to be released in May 2022.  Perhaps, if I had I would have delayed the publication by a few months!  In it, I described the rather tenuous connection with my father’s cousin, HAL Fisher.  The interest and comments I received made me explore deception used as a weapon during World War II.  It was this that led me to learn about the use of plastic surgery to change people’s appearance for the purpose of espionage. 

Arthur Rainsford Mowlem 1902-1986

Although surgery to alter appearance has been carried out to a limited extent throughout history it was during the Second World War that it began to be developed in earnest.   A popular reason given for this was the desire to treat badly injured pilots who had survived their aircraft being shot down.  However, there was a far more secret purpose being carried out too – to assist the SOE (the UK’s Special Operations Executive) in their missions behind enemy lines.  In released official documents, the procedures – known euphemistically as ‘permanent make-up’ – are listed as casually as one might write a shopping list: ‘plastic operations to forehead’, ‘surgical operations to ears’, and so on.  Once war was over some of the recipients began to talk about their treatment which, although disapproved of by the Government, were not silenced.

“An excellent agent and a dependable officer” – before and after surgery

Arthur Rainsford Mowlem, born in New Zealand in 1902, came to England in the late ‘20s to further his development as a medic.  In 1936 he joined the practice of Sir Harold Gillies, also a New Zealander and described as ‘the father of modern plastic surgery’.  Here they worked alongside pioneering new methods of treatment.  It is unknown when or how Mowlem and other surgeons were enlisted to help the SOE and Mowlem never spoke of it during his lifetime.  However, in correspondence between him and the SOE he discusses the prospect of surgery to alter the appearance of a French agent.  How Mowlem felt about operating on these healthy men is unknown but an un-named surgeon tells of how the work now required of them “was a mockery of all that they had trained for”.

My mother, Rachel Oberzanek: 21st birthday portrait

My mother’s career with Odeon Cinemas had progressed rapidly throughout the war and by 1944 she was heading the Licencing Department with a team of assistants.  Odeon had, by then, evacuated their offices from London to the small, riverside town of Marlow in Buckinghamshire.  She was accommodated in a lovely and old country house in the nearby village of Well End.  Living at the Old Malt House must have seemed a different world from the London’s West End where she had been brought up and she would tell of how she would lean out of her bedroom window to pick fruit from the grapevine that grew on the house walls.  With extensive grounds, a cook and a housekeeper and the use of a chauffeured car it must have been a life of relative luxury that she would have been unused to.  It was here that she also met her future husband – my father – so a very happy and untroubled time for her.  All that changed in an instance when, on the first day of December 1945 during the black-out, her car was involved in a head-on accident. 

The Old Malt House, Well End – grapevines cover the front of the building – c1943

In those days of cars with no seat belts, my mother had taken the full force of the crash and had been catapulted through the windscreen.  Unconscious, she was taken by ambulance to Wycombe Hospital and with multiple facial and head injuries unexpected to survive the night. Fortunately, Odeon proved to be excellent and supportive employers, driving her parents down from London and accommodating them so that they were able to visit her regularly.  On Christmas Day she came out of the coma unaware of what had happened over the past month.  She would tell of how she had first heard singing and, opening her eyes, saw a blurred vision of people dressed in white that she though must be angels.  They were, of course, her nurses singing a carol!  Badly scarred and with broken nose and cheekbones she was finally released from hospital unable to work and embarrassed about being seen in public.  In her memoir, she described the first day she had to enter a crowded room and how it fell silent when she appeared, a humiliating and distressing moment. 

My mother, in the grounds of The Old Malt House, and looking so happy, just before the accident that changed her life – and her appearance

Six months after her accident, Odeon who had been caring for her as well as paying her salary all this time arranged for her to be taken to London to see a doctor at The London Clinic in Harley Street.  The doctor was surgeon Arthur Rainsford Mowlem; in mother’s words, “a charming man who promised me he would do all he could.”   There followed a series of operations over many weeks where he reconstructed the badly damaged side of her face, repaired the cheekbones, and rebuilt her badly broken nose using part of her hipbone.   Looking at her wedding photograph, taken such a short time after in the autumn of 1946, his skilful work is quite extraordinary although my mother kept the picture hidden away; all she could see was a face that didn’t quite belong to her.  Nowadays, I imagine, she would have received some sort of counselling but then it was just a case of ‘getting on with it’.

My parents on their wedding day – just weeks after her face had been reconstructed

Living well into her 90s, mother’s issues with discomfort in her neck and head waned over time only to be replaced by a later source of (bemused) irritation.  When visiting hospitals there would be a succession of doctors and nurses wanting to look at her facial surgery for none had seen such early reconstruction and to see how it had fared over seventy years.  She had been told that she was the first civilian to receive plastic surgery and for the remainder of her long life she was eternally grateful to Odeon Cinemas who had cared for her and paid for her treatment.  Most of all, she was grateful to Rainsford Mowlem, without whom she would have had a lifetime of disfigurement; to her he was, indeed a hero.

Mum on her 90th birthday – and seventy years after the facial reconstruction

To read the story of Operation Mincemeat and The Man Who Never Was click here

References:
Wikipedia   Arthur Rainsford Mowlem

Amin, Kavit   Rainsford Mowlem: An unsung father of reconstructive surgery

Bailey, Roderick.   Special Operations: a hidden chapter in the histories of facial surgery and human enhancement    (CC BY 4.0) 

EDIT: Today, 21st June, I was delighted to receive this lovely email in response to this blog post from The London Clinic where my mother received her revolutionary treatment 70 years ago. They are happy for me to share it with you – you may need to click on the image of the email to make the typeface clearer

Discovering the Five Senses in Lockdown

It sometimes takes a crisis to make us re-evaluate what is of importance in our lives and the present one of Coronavirus/Corvid-19 surely has to be the greatest that we will collectively face. Now, several weeks into lockdown we have all been developing new patterns to our daily regime, one of which may well be taking more exercise. Never before have we placed so much value on fresh air and being able to walk freely whether it be in our parks, gardens or open countryside.

Marlow watermark

                           Riverside path, Higginson Park, Marlow (before social distancing).                                 The river is the River Thames in Buckinghamshire

Living where I do in the Cotswolds surrounded by fields and with woodlands and the river close by it is relatively easy for me to enjoy the open space. For others able to take advantage of their enforced free time, it may involve a longer walk and I have certainly noticed an increase in the numbers of walkers and cyclists here in the valley. I have also noticed that for many of them one aspect of their lives hasn’t changed: as they walk their eyes are glued to the screen of their mobiles and headphones are clamped to their ears, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. It has made me think all the more of our five senses and how we use (or should use) each one of them when out exercising.

Nr Fingest copyright

Cycling in the Chiltern Hills

SIGHT For those of us blessed with the gift of vision, perhaps sight is the most important sense we use and perhaps the one we most take for granted.  Without it, it is still possible to enjoy one’s surroundings for the other senses become heightened but I doubt if anyone would deny the pleasure of seeing the beauty that surrounds us on our daily walks. Even within cities there is much nature to be enjoyed although I admit that sometimes it has to be sought with more vigour and awareness.

Viola watermark

Look everywhere – self-sown violas peep out from overhead guttering!

At this time of year, more than any other season, there is much to see. Tight leaf buds unfurl into an explosion of vivid green foliage, iridescent wherever sunlight filters through; young ducklings tumbling into the park pond to take their first swim. But it isn’t just the natural world to be seen anew, there are other things too. Although it had been there for more than a hundred and forty years (and I’d walked past it very day for twenty) the date scratched into the stone on this wall had gone unnoticed.

Date stone watermark

Who scratched this date into the old stone wall and why?

HEARING Along with sight the second most important sense we use on our daily amble. Apart from the glory of birdsong there are other sounds that bombard us when out walking. The wind flurry that makes the catkins tremble and shed their pollen, the stronger breeze that make the twigs and branches clatter gently against one another. Then there’s the rustle in the undergrowth. Stop and wait silently and with patience you may be rewarded by the sight of a little field mouse going about its daily chores or a rabbit venturing out to feed.

Field Mouse watermark

patience was rewarded when this little field mouse ventured into the open

Altamont Gardens (8) watermark

… and also this rabbit

The sound of the river alters constantly. The smooth, barely audible glide of the water changes to a tinkling of soft musical sounds, its flow interrupted by a fallen branch. A few yards further downstream they rise to a crescendo as they crash and tumble over the old millrace before returning to silence as the flow stills in the calm of the millpond.

Radford Mill (1) watermark

The old millrace 

Radford Mill watermark

the calm of the millpond

TOUCH   In the present crisis we are sensibly being discouraged from touching things unnecessarily. Out on walks perhaps care may be advisable when opening gates or climbing stiles but, if you do, take a moment to think about what you feel. Heed the cold steel of the metal five-bar gate and the way it slowly warms beneath your hand; feel the rough timbers of a stile worn smooth from much use over the years. Of less concern health-wise – and all the more pleasurable for that – become aware of the softness of new horse chestnut leaves; later in the year they will become as harsh as sandpaper. Run your fingers across the twisted, grooved bark of the sweet chestnut tree and stroke the furry softness of the aptly named ‘Lamb’s Ears’, the favourite garden herbaceous plant Stachys byzantina.

Sweet Chestnut 4 watermark

The deeply grooved bark of the Sweet Chestnut tree

Stachys byzantina  Lamb’s Ears

SMELL   The scent of spring is everywhere at the moment and to be delighted in. However, the sense of smell is also a powerful trigger of long-forgotten memories. In a few weeks’ time the sweet scent of drying hay in the meadows may recall childhood farm holidays but for now there is the unique smell of new-mown lawns. Both start off as freshly cut grass yet their scent is so surprisingly different. Likewise, compare the subtly differing fragrance of apple and cherry blossom, both in their full-blown glory right now.

Drying hay before baling

The smell of freshly-mown grass…

Without even leaving home, squeeze the leaves of the herbs on the kitchen sill and notice their variation in scent, their colours and textures too. Early morn in the woodland, especially after warm rain, the delicate perfume of bluebells quickly disappears as the sun becomes stronger. Half-close your eyes and glory in their colour, in the silence and in their perfume and leave all cares behind you – if only for a while.

discover the different textures & scents of herbs

The vivid greens & blues of an English beechwood in spring

In town, the scents are also there just waiting to be noticed. Rain falling on roads and pavements or scorched by hot sun both produce delightfully tarry smells, one mild, the other strong. In the formal beds of the local park flowering bulbs stand in regimental rows; each have a unique scent which rises in the air to mingle with the vanilla fragrance of wallflowers. The wallflowers, their dull green foliage barely noticeable throughout the winter, now shout out the arrival of spring through the colours of their flowers of brick red, orange and yellow.

Tulips & wallflowers – a favourite park bedding combination

TASTE   In shaded places where the soil stays moist you may be greeted – even before you arrive – by the pungent scent of wild garlic. A prolific carpeter of the woodland floor its leaves and flowers make a useful ingredient to spring salads. Wild garlic or Ramsons to give it it’s country name, is fickle where it will grow. In some places that would seem suitable, not a single plant can be found. A less common member of the onion family to be found in the wild are the chives of our gardens, they grow along road edges and field boundaries locally. It is thought that they were spread by the old drovers of centuries ago so that they could harvest them along the way to liven up a bland meal. There is no doubting its identification, disturb the tubular green leaves and the familiar scent is immediately released.

Ramsons grow in damp, shaded places

It is not only the onion family that can be nibbled en route. Richard Mabey in his book Food for Free, published many years before foraging became a ‘craze’, suggests nibbling on the half-open buds of hawthorn. Many a country child has done so over countless generations and perhaps that is how they got their old name of Bread and Cheese. To me, they only have a slightly nutty taste and texture.

Hawthorn leaf buds are not really worth eating!

As a boy, brought up close to the River Thames, the hollow stems of the common reed were a regular source of pleasure for the soft pithy centre could be drawn out by pulling the stems through clenched teeth. Close to my present home there is also a small reedbed. These tall reeds have something to offer every one of the other senses too: sight – the pleasure of watching petrol-blue damsel-flies sunbathing on the stems; hearing – as they sway and rustle with the slightest breeze; touch – the coarseness of the leaves, a contrast to their smooth stems; smell – those of the river as it seeps around the roots, a heady mix of wet mud and wet greenery.

Only the male of the Beautiful Demoiselle damsel-fly has petrol-blue wings & body

So, within the bounds and restraints of the Covid-19 advice when out on your daily exercise, remove the earphones, place the phone in your pocket and use, really use, every one of your senses. Not only will you notice more, you will wonder how you never managed to notice them before. Stay safe, stay alert and take this unique opportunity to discover a new world on your doorstep.

Finally, one word of warning. Only try tasting wild plants if you are confident they have been identified correctly. If you decide to forage, do so responsibly and only pick a few leaves at a time. Make sure that all plants for consumption are free of pesticides and other contaminants, especially those growing in or near water.