AboutFace: emotions, history and transplantation


Human faces serve many functions, personal and political. They are believed to invoke or convey our evolutionary heritage, social identity and our emotional experiences, as well as our sense of self. The extent to which the face confers a stable point of identity has been up for debate (Martindale and Fischer, 2019), but the perceived relationship between the face and personhood – like that between face and character – is a long-standing one (Pearl, 2010 & 2017).

Yet faces change. They do not stay the same throughout a person’s life, though the beauty industry’s obsession with youth – especially for women – might suggest otherwise. For some these changes are gradual and anticipated, though not necessarily accepted. For others, they are sudden, unexpected and even catastrophic.

There has been an extensive historiography of facial change as a result of war and violence, especially during WW1 and WW2, and detailed forays into history of surgery (Schlich, 2018). Rich scholarly work has also been undertaken into the history of facial damage in earlier periods, and of the development of cosmetic, in relation to reconstructive, surgery (Haiken, 1997, 2000; Gilman, 2000).

Sociological analyses of the meanings of facial transformation through surgery have shown how significant changes to the face, through feminization or transplantation, can impact on a sense of self, and intersect with discourses on stigma (Talley, 2016). These implied hierarchies of appearance link to insights from the history of skin whitening – reminding us that the face is a space defined not only by concepts of damage, age and beauty, but also by beliefs about nationhood, ethnicity and gender. Similar stories are found in the history of transplantation (Lederer, 2008).

AboutFace: The Affective and Cultural History of Face Transplants brings these diverse approaches together in a study of visible facial difference and transplantation. Funded by a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship and based in the University of York’s History department, AboutFace connects with the histories of emotion, the body, cosmetic surgery and the self, and explores how the face has been imagined symbolically, culturally and surgically, in history, and in relation to face transplants.

What is exciting, to me, as a historian of emotion, gender and the body, is the project’s ability to cross disciplines, to work with extended surgical teams in the UK and the US (including surgeons, nurses, prosthetists, anaesthetists, physiotherapists), people living with acquired facial difference, artists, writers, ethicists, psychologists, philosophers and policymakers. In so doing, AboutFace seeks to create a new framework through which we can understand the emotional and cultural impact of face transplants.

Of course, acquired facial difference and transplantation are emotive subjects in their own right. And the project’s concerns intersect with a variety of medical humanities approaches to injury and identity, and the practices of affective or emotionally-challenging research. This includes the histories of trauma and sexual violence, the emotional effects of research and a focus on embodied research practices  which have been critically raised by Beatriz Pichel  and Chris Millard amongst others.

AboutFace is keen to bring people with lived experience into the framing of its research questions as well as its outputs. One of the first tasks of our website when it launches in October 2019 will be to ensure an inclusive approach to discussions about difference, to invite dialogue, and to learn from projects where lived experience forms part of a broader and diverse body of expertise.

Image by Lucy Burscough

We will also be exploring the difficulties of language: visual, material, gestural, symbolic and textual. Thinking through how we talk about difference, how we use images and where we situate our research and its outcomes will be an ongoing learning process for the project, and we look forward to insights from across the medical humanities community. The image used in this post is a section from a portrait by Lucy Burscough, one of our key collaborators.

Lucy will be joining me to speak at the AboutFace project launch on Friday 25 October 2019 in York. We will be framing the emotional and cultural history of the face, and joined by the writer Louisa Young; James Partridge, founder of Changing Faces and Face Equality International; the head and neck surgeon Daniel Saleh; and the clinical psychologist Sue Brown. The artist Clare Whistler will be performing before and after the panel discussion. The event is free and includes a wine reception – you can pick up your ticket here.

If you can’t make it, don’t worry: we will be recording the event and making it available via www.aboutfaceyork.com On the project website, which launches at the end of October 2019, you will find more about the team, the advisory board and our collaborators, as well as the events we have lined up over the coming months. Do get in touch if you want to share news, connect or collaborate – we would love to hear from you.

Fay Bound Alberti is a Reader in History and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at the University of York. Her most recent book is A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion (Oxford University Press, 2019).


Bound Alberti (2016) This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture, Oxford University Press.

Cock (2019), Rhinoplasty and the nose in early modern British medicine and culture Manchester University Press.

L. Gilman (2000). Making the body beautiful: A cultural history of aesthetic surgery Princeton University Press.

Haiken, Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery, Johns Hopkins, 1997.

Lederer (2008) Flesh and Blood: Organ Transplantation and Blood Transfusion in 20th-Century America, Oxford University Press.

A-M. Martindale and P. Fisher, 2019  ‘Disrupted faces, disrupted identities? Embodiment, life stories and acquired facial “disfigurement”,’ Sociology of Health and Illness, 20, pp. 1-17.

Pearl, (2010) About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Harvard University Press.

Pearl (2017), Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other University of Chicago Press.

Schlich, T. (Ed.). (2018). The Palgrave handbook of the history of surgery Palgrave Macmillan.

H.L. Talley,  (2016) Saving Face: Disfigurement and the Politics of Appearance New York: New York University Press.

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