Northern Ireland news

The Armagh sculptor whose treatment for broken bones is still used 100 years on

Anne Acheson sculpting, October late 1920s. Photograph courtesy of The Anne Acheson Estate
Mairead Holland

AMID the suffering of the First World War, a Co Armagh-born sculptor came up with an idea that was to revolutionise the treatment of broken limbs – and is still universally used today.

Anne Crawford Acheson used her artistic flair and knowledge of the human anatomy gleaned while studying at art college in London to invent the first Plaster of Paris splints.

The treatment was ground-breaking at the time and a life-changer for the injured as, according to experts, finding a way to treat fractures was the single, greatest medical need of the Great War.

Now the remarkable story of the Portadown woman, who was born in 1882, is being chronicled in an exhibition in her home town.

Ms Acheson, a volunteer with the Surgical Requisites Association in London, and her colleagues faced a daunting task in helping the injured returning from the front.

Anne Acheson works on a sculpture of the head of Paul Faris, one of her nephews, in 1959. Photograph courtesy of The Anne Acheson Estate

As her biographer David Llewellyn explained for a TV documentary last November, broken bones were a particular problem.

"The Tommies were being shelled and the shells were exploding over their heads," he said.

"So they would put their arms over their heads to protect their faces and the shrapnel would break a bone – the humerus, radius or ulna.

"They would then be crudely splinted. That meant the fracture would often have been reduced, but by the time they got back to Britain 10 days later, the bones were back to where they were – they were broken or not aligned."

The anatomically accurate splints invented by Ms Acheson were comfortable, lightweight and cost effective, and ensured that bones were immobilised and held in the correct position to properly heal.

Anne Acheson fixes an eye patch to a soldier (c1915-1918) during her time as a volunteer with the Surgical Requisites Association during the First World War. Photograph courtesy of The Anne Acheson Estate

They were constructed initially from papier mâché made from sugar bags and later Plaster of Paris.

She was made a CBE in 1919 in recognition of her work and after hostilities ended returned to sculpting, specialising in bronze statuettes and garden figurines.

Ms Acheson was acknowledged as one of Britain's leading sculptors in the first half of the 20th century and her work featured regularly in exhibitions by the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the Royal Hibernian Academy, the Paris Salon and the Royal Ulster Academy.

In 1938, she became the first woman elected as a fellow of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, and when World War Two broke out, volunteered again, working in London for the Red Cross during the Blitz.

She spent her final years in Glenavy, Co Antrim, until her death in 1962, and last October was honoured with a blue plaque, erected in her home town.

The exhibition, Anne Acheson: A Sculptor in War and Peace, at Millennium Court Arts Centre in Portadown opened on Friday last week will run until May 18.

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