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Casting her net widely ... the Portadown-born sculptor who used plaster of Paris to revolutionise the treatment of limbs shattered in battle on Western Front

A new BBC NI documentary tells the incredible story of how Anne Acheson, the celebrated artist, volunteered for the First World War and went on to rewrite medical history. Ivan Little reports

Anne Acheson
Anne Acheson
The sculptor at work in her London studio
Presenter Dr Saleyha Ahsan with Anne's great nephew Neil Faris in the BBC TV documentary Anne Acheson: The Art Of Medicine, exploring the life of the medical pioneer
Anne wearing her Surgical Requisites Association uniform during the war

Thousands of girls who've studied in the preparatory department at prestigious Victoria College in leafy south Belfast probably never gave the tiny sculpture in their grounds a second glance. But behind the figurine of a small child holding a lantern lies a fascinating and little-known story of the sculptor, a former Victoria pupil who helped to rewrite medical history in a most unusual fashion.

For gifted artist Anne Acheson was not only a renowned sculptor, but also a pioneering lifesaver who, 100 years ago, used her creative skills to mastermind what was then a new method of treating broken bones with plaster casts.

And tomorrow night a BBC Northern Ireland TV documentary will show how Anne's invention, which has been credited with helping in the recovery of thousands of people with shattered arms and legs, was born during the First World War.

Hundreds of soldiers were coming back from the front with broken limbs, held together with rudimentary wooden splints and a few bandages. But Anne, who was by then an acclaimed sculptor in London, saw the need for something better.

She'd temporarily given up her artistic endeavours to volunteer with women's organisation the Surgical Requisites Association (SRA) that had been set up in 1914 to develop and supply surgical techniques and equipment for the treatment of wounded troops.

And in the documentary, The Art Of Medicine, Saleyha Ahsan, a humanitarian doctor and former captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, tells how Anne came up with her ground-breaking idea, marrying her talents for sculpture with her desire to make life better for the injured soldiers.

And she explores how Anne's innovation has been adopted and adapted down the years to the point where it is now routinely used by medics in fracture units all over the world.

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Even Dr Ahsan was surprised at Anne's role in it all and how she made the "leap" from art to medicine.

She admits: "I always thought the medical advances that helped me in my work were made by scientists and other doctors.

"What I didn't know was that, 100 years ago as the First World War raged across Europe, one woman from Ulster was busily developing new ways to treat bodies shattered on the battlefields."

And she says what makes Anne's input even more astonishing is that she was an artist who had no medical training whatsoever.

But she adds: "In the spirit of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, she knew human anatomy in astonishing detail."

Dr Ahsan also delves into Anne's back story as the daughter of wealthy linen mill owners in Co Armagh who was born in 1882.

John and Harriet Acheson, an Ulster-Scots Presbyterian couple, lived at Dunavon in the Carrickblacker area of Portadown where Anne, the second-oldest child in a family of seven, attended primary school before going on to Victoria College. which had counted her mother as one of its teachers.

Dr Ashan says the college was revolutionary in its approach to women's education and the Achesons encouraged all their girls to go there and utilise their talents to the full, just as they had urged their sons to do.

Anne, a prolific portrait artist, would later donate the sculpture called December to the college.

Dr Ashan says: "What the sculpture says to me is that, as an artist, she really understood the contours and proportions of the human body. That's useful for artists and it's useful for doctors."

She went on to study at the Belfast School of Art, where she won a prize for her drawing and gave the first hint of what was to come in her contributions to medicine by choosing as her award a book called Anatomical Diagrams For The Use Of Art Students.

She also won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London, studying sculpture from 1906 to 1910.

After college she quickly attracted the attention of the art world through major exhibitions in London and further afield.

But her amazing versatility as an artist knew no bounds and it's illustrated by Anne's great nephew Neil Faris, who tells the documentary-makers how she not only designed ceramics for the Royal Worcester Company, but also the little "mascots" which were bolted onto the radiator caps of a number of expensive cars from the era.

However, Dr Ahsan says that Anne showed a strength of character by "demanding" to be allowed to carry out voluntary work during the First World War.

She suggests her commitment may have been the result of her Ulster Presbyterian upbringing. "Service to others was highly valued," says Dr Ahsan. "Her grandfather, the Rev James Glasgow, sacrificed a comfortable life in Ireland to serve as the first Irish Presbyterian missionary in India."

In the SRA she worked with another sculptor, Elinor Halle, on the task of improving the chances of injured soldiers with shattered bones of making full recoveries.

Dr Ahsan says Anne's knowledge of human anatomy proved to be invaluable.

Local artist Ross Wilson is featured in the documentary, sharing his insights into why anatomy is so important to sculptors.

He says: "A sculptor sees things from the inside out. It's not just how they look on the outside. It's about seeing how the body works, how the muscles move and the tendons stretch. You need that kind of information to make high-quality work."

Dr Emily Mayhew, a military medical historian who specialises in the study of severe casualties, says Anne would have seen wounded soldiers every day.

"She would have seen a lot of patients on crutches, because they were amputees, or had limb problems. Everyone she knew, or saw, had engaged with the war."

Dr Ashan says that, at the start of the war, women didn't have the vote and she argues that the Government was ignoring their potential.

But she adds: "Women like Anne knew they could make a real and lasting contribution in the country's hour of need."

And what Anne did was to try develop an alternative for treating front line soldiers, whose injuries had been crudely splinted with pieces of wood, or belts, which meant that the breaks couldn't heal properly and were often impossible to repair on the troops' return to Britain.

The upshot was that limbs would be amputated, or soldiers would be disabled for the rest of their lives.

But the SRA was recruited to relieve the pressure on overstretched medics.

Says Dr Mayhew: "They were asked to make a cradle, which would offer greater support and allow for better healing of a broken bone in the arm. As professional sculptors, Anne Acheson and Elinor Halle were perfect for the challenge. They were under strict instructions that it be cheap, durable and wearable."

But the sculptors had a secret weapon - papier mache - for less-painful, custom-made and anatomically correct splints, which replaced their one-size-fits-all predecessors.

However, Dr Ashan says that the papier mache splints took too long to make, adding: "Anne applied all her ingenuity in coming up with an alternative and quicker-to-use material. She looked to the art world for inspiration. As a sculptor, she used plaster of Paris. But could it be X-rayed? This was crucial in the management of broken bones."

Anne consulted doctors who confirmed that X-rays could be taken, but she still had difficulty persuading the medical profession as a whole that her splints could help reduce healing time while properly supporting broken limbs.

The rest, as they say, is medical history and Anne's invention was recognised in 1919 by her being awarded a newly established CBE at Buckingham Palace.

Anne was said to have been pleased and proud, but she was also buoyed by a letter from a senior Army officer commending her innovation for saving "so much suffering for so many people".

Dr Ashan says, however, Anne's greatest satisfaction came from the response of her patients, who thanked her for what she had done for them.

After the war she returned to her life as a sculptor, but the legacy of the conflict was said to have influenced her work in her representations of what Dr Ashan calls "the perfect, unblemished figures of young children" like the one she donated to her old school.

In 1938 Anne was the first woman to be elected as a fellow of the Royal British Society of Sculptors.

However, the outbreak of the Second World War saw her pausing her artistic career once again to volunteer, this time with the Red Cross. She had also retrained as an engineer.

Her studio was bombed during the London Blitz and she returned to Northern Ireland to live at Glenavy, where she died at the age of 79 in March 1962.

A blue plaque honouring her was unveiled by the Ulster History Circle at First Presbyterian Church in Portadown last month.

The director of The Art Of Medicine documentary, Laura Doherty, herself a former pupil of Victoria College, says she's thrilled that people will now get the chance to see and appreciate the work of Anne Acheson, who "was a ground-breaker in so many different ways".

She adds: "People here don't really know about Anne. It was a real journey of discovery for all of us. Anne was obviously a very modest woman, but her legacy lives on for millions of people who have benefited from her pioneering work on the treatment of broken limbs."

Anne Acheson: The Art Of Medicine, BBC Two Northern Ireland, tomorrow, 10pm

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