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A 19th-century craft immortalizes the august

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2007 - Autumn


In the 1950s a Yale professor created plaster casts of the faces of the medical school’s greats.

In the corridors of the Sterling Hall of Medicine, great men stare out from their portraits with expressions of visionary compassion. But to see what some eminent professors of yesteryear looked like in three dimensions, one must visit the library.

William Lawrence, D.D.S., former associate professor and chief of dental surgery, recently donated to the Historical Library at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library a series of moulages, three-dimensional figures molded from the faces of the medical school’s department chairs, which he made in the 1950s.

The moulages were an experiment in economy, because it was expensive to commission oil portraits of each department chair. So Lawrence was asked by the dean’s office to try his hand at sculpture using the techniques of dentistry.

He began the process by covering the subject’s face with the film used for taking impressions to make gold inlay fillings. Next came a layer of gauze, followed by a coating of plaster. Meanwhile, the subject breathed through straws inserted in the nostrils. After the mold dried, Lawrence filled it with dental stone. The result was an exact replica of the contours of the subject’s face.

The process was somewhat uncomfortable, but it was essential to have the subjects relax in order to prevent tightening of the facial muscles.

“I told them to think of something sexy,” recalled Lawrence, now 95. “Imagine those old buggers thinking of something sexy!”

Medical moulages were first introduced late in the 19th century, when they were made from wax and used in the diagnosis and treatment of venereal and skin diseases. They came to prominence at the first International Congress of Dermatology and Syphilology in Paris in August 1889. By the early 20th century moulages were produced by the thousands all over Europe.

Arranging face time with the department chairs, as it were, was difficult for Lawrence. “They all lived exalted lives,” Lawrence explained. After lunch in a private dining room, they returned to their offices and were not to be disturbed until 2 p.m., he said.

The first chair Lawrence did was so pleased that they all wanted moulages made. The moulages he donated depict a former dean, Francis Gilman Blake, M.D.; Sterling Professor of Physiology John F. Fulton, M.D.; Anthony Brady Professor of Pathology Harry Greene, M.D.; Chair of Surgery Samuel C. Harvey, M.D.; Dean C.N.H. Long, M.D.; Professor of Preventive Medicine John Paul, M.D.; John Slade Ely Professor of Medicine John P. Peters, M.D.; Associate Professor of Pediatrics Robert Salinger, M.D.; and Associate Professor and Chief of Dental Surgery Bert George Anderson, D.D.S. Anderson was a friend and colleague who preceded Lawrence as chief.

The school did commission oil portraits despite the moulages’ popularity, leaving the masks in Lawrence’s possession.

More requests followed, including one from a famous patient—author and playwright Thornton Wilder. Lawrence unveiled the moulage during one of Wilder’s spirited parties at his residence in Hamden. The subject objected that the moulage did not do justice to his intelligent brow. Wilder was comparing the realistic moulage to the sculpture of him done by Isamu Noguchi. However, he must have come to like the realistic depiction, as it was donated along with his papers to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The wife of an intern who died asked Lawrence to make a moulage from the corpse and mail it to her in Wyoming. “I always wondered what it was like when she opened the box and saw her husband’s face,” Lawrence said.

His handiwork helped the living when he used the technique to make prosthetic noses and ears in latex. Lawrence also devised a tool that fit between the teeth and enabled an armless veteran to turn pages.

The faculty moulages are now preserved at the library, where researchers can use them to grasp “an instant in time, something that a picture won’t give you,” said Toby Appel, the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History. They may also be exhibited so that a wider community can look into the face of history.

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