Haverford History: Virginia McCall's WWII Art Advanced the Field of Plastic Surgery at Valley Forge General Hospital
The artist and Motor Corps volunteer's contributions to the medical field include the use plaster casts to track facial surgery recovery and the development of the field of art therapy.
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The human body has been called a work of art—so perhaps it was appropriate that an artist should help put broken ones back together.
Haverford’s Virginia Armitage McCall spent the 1940s treating World War II soldiers delivered to the plastic surgery unit of Valley Forge General Hospital.
A volunteer, McCall made plaster casts of damaged faces, which helped guide surgeons through what were often multiple surgeries extending over months, even years. She made and painted plastic hands, feet and fingers that served as temporary psychological crutches for men waiting for prostheses. McCall also taught art classes for patients—a diversion for many and life changing for a few.
Artist friends accustomed to seeing McCall’s landscapes and still-lifes in galleries and shows called these her “years of silence.” McCall dismissed that. “Human life seems more important than works of art at the moment,” she told the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1947.
Born in Philadelphia and raised on Millbrook Farm in Haverford, McCall was the daughter of banker William McCall and his wife, Irva, and a descendant of Peter McCall, mayor of Philadelphia in the 1840s. She attended private schools, focusing on art and literature, and in 1926, began studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. “I hope to use my art as a mode of expression and, if possible, also as a support,” she wrote on her application.
McCall turned out to be a top student. In 1931, she won the school’s Cresson scholarship, which subsidizes travel and study abroad, followed by its Mary Smith Prize for Philadelphia women artists in 1932. McCall subsequently exhibited at the Whitney Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, the Paris Salon (a big deal in art circles) and at international exhibitions in Chicago and San Francisco. Her work was seen at regional exhibitions up and down the East Coast in the 1930s. It also ended up in the private collections of many high-profile local art lovers, including R. Sturgis Ingersoll, president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, a genuine Swiss baron who once lived in Devon.
Then came the war.
In early 1942, probably in the first flush of post-Pearl Harbor patriotism, Virginia McCall volunteered for the Motor Corps at Tilton General Hospital in Fort Dix, N.J. Her initial assignment was to train ambulance drivers. She’d wanted to serve abroad, but had the responsibility of caring for a sick relative (perhaps a parent). “It broke my heart when I found I could not go overseas,” she wrote in 1947. “I wanted desperately to share the hardships and the dangers, and could not bear the feeling of living in such security when the price was the lives of others.”