University of Exeter event: ‘Disfigured Faces: Modern and Early Modern’

Two members of the Effaced team will be presenting this Wednesday, 6 December, as part of the University of Exeter’s Centre for Medical History seminar series.

Disfigured Faces: Modern and Early Modern, presented by Dr Suzannah Biernoff (Birkbeck) and Dr Michelle Webb (Exeter). 1- 3pm, Digital Humanities Seminar Room 2. 

The abstracts are included below, and the poster is available here.

Dr Suzannah Biernoff (Birkbeck), ‘Facelessness in Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage‘.

The first facial transplant, using a donor’s nose, chin and mouth, was performed on Isabelle Dinoire in France in 2005, but the idea of removing or replacing the face – either with a mask, or a living face – has been around for much longer. This paper begins to map the cultural ‘pre-history’ of the face transplant, focusing on the idea and image of facelessness in Georges Franju’s classic horror film Les yeux sans visage (1959). Franju’s film sits uneasily within the academic history of plastic surgery, but as a cultural text it reveals a great deal about popular perceptions of disfigurement and experimental surgery – and the intimate relationship between disgust, horror and visual pleasure.

Suzannah Biernoff is Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture in the Department of History of Art at Birkbeck, University of London and co-director of Birkbeck’s Medical Humanities Research Group. Her research has spanned medieval and modern periods: she is the author of Sight and Embodiment in the Middle Ages (Palgrave, 2002), while her recent publications pursue the themes of corporeal history and visual anxiety in the context of First World War Britain. In 2007 she was awarded a Wellcome Trust Research Leave Award for a project on the cultural history of disfigurement. Open access articles from this project have been published in the journals Visual Culture in Britain, Social History of Medicine and Photographies, and an essay on Nina Berman’s Marine Wedding appeared in the edited volume Ugliness: The Non-beautiful in Art and Theory. Her latest book, Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement, was published by the University of Michigan Press earlier this year in their Corporealities: Discourses of Disability series.


Dr Michelle Webb, ‘A Noseless Man named Thomas Ford’: Facial Disfigurement in Early Modern England’.

In October 1639 Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork, recorded in his diary the details of the latest improvements to his house in Dorset: ‘I gaue 40li in part of 50li to haue a bowling green made me at Stalbridge, by a noseles man, named Thomas ford’. In his diary for that year, Boyle detailed his interactions with several hundred individuals, including men, women, close family members, near strangers, the King, the Queen, and a ‘poor ragged boye’ who was to be taken on as an apprentice cook.  Of this great multitude, he mentioned the physical appearance of only one person – Thomas Ford.

This paper will explore the experience of, and reactions to, facial difference in early modern England. What was it like to be, to encounter, or to treat ‘a noseles man’ like Thomas Ford? Would a noseless woman have been written about in the same way? And were there non-visual implications of a missing nose that contributed to the stigmatization of individuals such as Thomas Ford? This paper will argue that issues relating to gender and to the emotions are central to the study of facial disfigurement.

Michelle Webb has recently completed an AHRC funded PhD in Medical History at the University of Exeter, researching facial disfigurement in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. She is currently teaching at Exeter and planning a new project on early modern medicine and the emotions.

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