Here’s what happened when a “psycho-therapy surgeon" went to work in Kingston
CAN YOU CHANGE a man by changing his face? More and more psychotherapy surgeons — as many plastic surgeons now prefer to be called — are beginning to believe you can.
When a plastic surgeon named Lorne H. Burdett, of Ottawa, saw how many of his patients blossomed into more confident and convivial personalities after their physical disfigurements were removed, he wondered if similar surgery would reduce antisocial attitudes among criminals with repulsive features. Over a game of golf about three years ago, Dr. Burdett broached the subject to one of his best friends, A. J. MacLeod, who is Canada’s commissioner of penitentiaries. Intrigued, MacLeod urged Burdett to test his theory at Kingston Penitentiary. Burdett agreed and volunteered to visit Kingston at his own expense. Soon he had ten patients carefully selected from among eager volunteers in Kingston Penitentiary and Kingston Prison for Women.
(Burdett was by no means the first plastic surgeon to put this theory to a test. By then, Dr. Edward Lewison, a Vancouver plastic surgeon, had spent eight or nine years rebuilding the ugly noses, jug ears and weak chins of assorted drug addicts, shop lifters, forgers and petty thieves, at a rate of about forty a year. And he’s still at it. But his work has never been widely reported, and his patients are all people serving less than two years, in Oakalla Prison or the correctional unit for young offenders at Haney, B.C. Burdett’s experiment, on the other hand, was the first of its kind in any of Canada’s federal penitentiaries, where long-term convicts — presumably the hard-core criminals — serve time.)
Burdett decided to limit his test to ten cases. “As soon as word got
around the prisons that a plastic surgeon was coming, we were swamped with requests — especially from the women,” he recalls.
Prison authorities, including a psychiatrist, handled the initial screening, picking mostly younger prisoners who were soon to be released and seemed sincere about wanting to find honest work.
Burdett was amazed to discover most girls wanted plastic surgery to remove conspicuous tattoos on their hands or arms — mostly names or initials of old boy friends — which had made it impossible for them to get jobs as waitresses or sales clerks. Others wanted him to remove grimmer handicaps: w'rist scars, from attempted suicide. None asked for surgery simply for reasons of vanity. “All they wanted was to look normal — not glamorous,” Burdett says.
Since the prison psychiatrist found that physical defects were much more apt to affect the women psychologically than the men, Dr. Burdett chose seven girls and only three men.
From one man Burdett removed a chronically discharging scar on the jaw, caused by an infected tooth. For the other two he rebuilt badly deformed noses. (One man had a job lined up as a jazz saxophonist after release, and was afraid his bashed-up nose would spoil his chances.)
What about criminals wanting plastic surgery to disguise themselves for future crimes? Such people, says Burdett, would scarcely get such surgery done in prison; they’d seek it privately after they’re out. Anyhow, says MacLeod, careful screening and beforeand-after photos help reduce any such risk. Besides, since many operations involve merely removal of tattoos or scars, no “disguise” is brought about.
It’s now nearly three years since the operations were performed, but with only ten cases involved, results even yet are inconclusive. But, considering all ten patients had been re-
peaters, the record seems encouraging, at least among the women.
All seven women were released in 1962 and only three have since returned to prison. But of the three men, only the saxophonist stayed out of trouble. The other man with the rebuilt nose has been sent to prison or jail three times since. The one with the jaw scar is now serving nine years for an armed robbery he committed within two weeks of his release.
But neither Burdett nor MacLeod is ready to write off the experiment as a failure. For one thing, if half the cases are really successful, as they appear to be so far, they’re well ahead of the overall records for repeaters. (Three out of four men released from Kingston Penitentiary eventually end up in prison again.) Encouraged, Burdett is anxious to take on other prison cases when he can spare the time. And MacLeod says: “Of course there are many more factors involved in rehabilitation, but a really repulsive disfigurement is bound to make it harder for a person to adjust to normal living.”
And at least two patients who have shown up in his Ottawa office since then believe Burdett has a good idea. Both were penitentiary inmates who applied for plastic surgery but were turned down by the prison psychiatrist.
One, Burdett, remembers, was “an extremely pretty little girl” who had been in prison for drug offenses and prostitution. “She had tattoos all over her — there were names on both arms, on her breast and thighs, and initials on every finger.” Burdett operated on her four times, without charge. But the tattoos weren’t the girl’s only problem.
“She was such a lucrative proposition for her dope pusher that he followed her here from Toronto to get her back on drugs and prostitution. “The last I heard of her,” he con-
cludes, “she’d tried to commit suicide.” The second case was an otherwise handsome man in his twenties who was self-conscious about acne scars that badly disfigured his face. Burdett gave the man dermabrasion treatments, again without charge. “I haven’t heard of him since,” he says. And of course he hopes he never will.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.