There aren’t very many good photographs of this sailor before the explosion that changed his face and his life. We could only dig up one single photograph of Yeo’s face before it was badly burned beyond recognition (see above) and, despite the poor quality of the image, it’s clear that he was a very handsome man beforehand.
This all happened during WWI. Walter sustained terrible facial injuries including the loss of upper and lower eyelids while he was stationed aboard the HMS Warspite in 1916. It’s unclear if the explosion was from enemy fire or if there was an accident aboard the ship. In 2008, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum tried to find Yeo’s existing relatives to find out what happened and to see how he coped after the plastic surgery, but the search hit a dead-end.
What we do know about Yeo is that he was treated by a physician named Sir Harold Gillies. Gillies is the first doctor to use skin grafts from healthy skin tissue and is known as the “father of plastic surgery.” In fact, Walter Yeo is the first man to receive his services, so he’s the first plastic surgery recipient in history. The treatment Yeo received from Gillies is a form of skin grafting called ‘tubed pedical’. If you look at the photos you’ll understand why this name was used, as the grafts around his face resembled tubes.
Considering that the surgery took place almost 100 years ago, it is considered a huge success. Walter Yeo’s remarkable transformation can also be seen in an exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in London. The exhibit explores the pioneering efforts to repair the lives of WWI veterans through plastic surgery.