The subjective nature of disfigurement

Five months into my research project, I have visited the National Archives at Kew a number of times, and am gathering a collection of interesting and useful sources for my PhD thesis. As my project deals with specific conditions, namely facial injuries and war neurosis, the process of selecting relevant material from the 22,756 files in the PIN 26 database involves searching for pension claims by disability. A relatively large number of files within the database concern war neurosis of some form, and whilst a smaller figure, files relating to facial injuries have presented some interesting questions around which to shape my research. One issue which has emerged from these initial searches, and a closer examination of some PIN 26 and PIN 15 (papers and correspondence dealing with pension administrations) files, is debate amongst pension officials, doctors and pensioners about the nature, classification, and appropriate compensation for disfigurement and wounds of the face.

One file, in which a debate takes place between doctors and civil servants as to ‘the cosmetic value of a blind eye’ (PIN 15/3710) is particularly interesting. The claimant received shell wounds to the face in 1915, which resulted in the removal of an eye. In the pension classification system, the loss of vision in one eye entitled a serviceman to a 50% pension.[1] In this case, however, the pensioner was awarded 20%, due to the lost eye having impaired vision upon enlistment. The doctor who recommended this award was called upon to defend his ‘over-generous’ decision, in light of the fact that this was a ‘non-disabling wound’. In response, the doctor cited the ‘facial disfigurement resulting from the loss of an eye’ as the reason for the 20% award.

In what follows, there is much debate about what constitutes disfigurement, with one side clearly rejecting the idea of ‘light’ disfigurement as a disability worthy of financial compensation. Whilst they accept that severe disfigurement is pensionable, the pensions system does not, they argue, compensate ‘men generally for disfiguring scars in a minor degree’. In a counter-response, the doctor and a civil servant argue that the cosmetic value of any eye, functional or not, is ‘undoubted’ and propose that a pension for severe disfigurement, for which an ex-serviceman would receive an 80% award, might be appropriate.

This debate reveals the attempts to understand and conceptualise the relationship between, and relative importance of, function and aesthetics. Whilst one functioning eye was worth 50%, the cosmetic implications of a missing eye could be evaluated at a further 30%. To some, a missing blind eye was ‘a facial blemish’, whilst for others ‘an excised eye ensures disfigurement’. This file, therefore, raises questions about the importance of subjective opinion in the financial care offered by the state, and the role of individual agents, such as doctors, in lobbying for greater financial support for facially-wounded men.

[1] Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 1999), p.66.