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Wednesday, March 26, 2008 10:49 am

Crafting her niche

Hettie Bunker Smith shaped medical history

Untitled Document Tucked away in her farmhouse on Old Rochester Road in the 1940s, using plaster of Paris, brushes, photos, and beeswax, Hettie Bunker Smith shaped medical history. Although Smith had wanted to be a doctor, her father discouraged it, instead encouraging her to pursue the work she did best — art. Smith heeded his advice, but she also minored in health and took medical courses, according to the Illinois State Register and Journal articles from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.
One day, when a friend asked for help, Smith found her real niche: moulage, the art of creating what we now call prostheses: artificial noses, ears, lips, and other body parts. At the time, it was a relatively new field. Smith had to develop techniques and experiment with numerous materials to get the parts just right. Her painstaking work was a hobby, done not for profit but for the sake of helping others. “I just like to do things for people,” Smith said in the Dec. 12, 1956 Journal. And she did — for thousands. It started around 1935. One of Smith’s friends had lost part of her nose during surgery and used white adhesive tape to cover the area. The friend asked Smith whether she could apply skin-colored paint to the tape.
Smith spent the next 14 months experimenting to get just the right tint, but she didn’t stop there. Thinking that it would be better if her friend could have an artificial nose, she sought her dentist’s help in creating one. Smith contacted artists, surgeons, chemists, dermatologists, and drugstores around the nation for help and materials. She became so skilled at moulage that she gave talks on the subject at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and taught doctors at the University of Illinois, a dental school in Chicago, and Baltimore Hospital, according to the March 14, 1961 Register.
Trial and error helped Smith perfect her process. She first made a mold of the body part with beeswax, using hot cloths to keep the wax pliable until she was finished. She then poured plaster of Paris over the mold to make a cast and finally used the cast to mold rubber into the final prosthesis. Smith carefully painted the rubber so that no brushstrokes showed, making the piece as realistic as possible. Her work (and eyesight) were meticulous — Smith said in a Sept. 4, 1947 Register article that an ear has five to seven shades of color. Unique problems popped up, such as how to make a prosthesis look tanned so the patient could wear it during the summer. Solution: Tint the paint with cocoa. Another problem was re-creating eyelashes. A woman who had had an eye removed asked Smith to create an eyelid for her; without it, she couldn’t wear an artificial eye. The lid was no problem, but the eyelashes were another story.
Smith tried hair from the lady’s head, but it was “stubby,” not curved and tapered like eyelashes, according to the Register article. “She was at her wits’ end when the woman came for another fitting. The day was warm and the patient’s husband was in his shirtsleeves. Mrs. Smith saw the long, curving hairs on his arm and had an inspiration! She carefully plucked the desired lengths with tweezers, and fitted them into the plastic eyelid by passing them through the eye of a needle.” Perfect. During World War II, Smith volunteered to make prostheses for wounded soldiers. She drove to Camp Atterbury in Indiana “several times a week, often making as many as 26 casts in a day,” says the Dec. 12, 1956 Journal. Smith received a presidential citation for her work there.
Thousands of people from around the country sought her help. An 11-year-old Kansas girl who was missing an ear read about Smith in a shopping guide and traveled here to meet with her, according to the March 14, 1961 Register. Smith didn’t always meet her patients, though; sometimes their physicians sent her photographs to work from. Her husband, attorney Sidney Smith, supported his wife’s hobby but wavered at times because of its effects on her. “I was taking the most horrible problems to bed with me and found it difficult to sleep,” she said in the 1961 Register.
In 1986 she was honored again, this time as an inductee into the prestigious International Platform Association, an organization of lecturers and speakers dedicated to improving public speaking. Others inducted that year included President Lyndon B. Johnson, Hal Holbrook, Edgar Bergen, and Dr. Charles Mayo. Smith died five years later, at the age of 93. 

Tara McClellan McAndrew is lifelong Springfield resident and freelance writer. Contact her at TMcand22@aol.com.
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