Varaztad Kazanjian – Father of Plastic Surgery

The massacres during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid forced the Kazanjian family to leave their hometown of Yerznka and move to Sebastia where things were calmer. In Sebastia, 12-year-old Varaztad Kazanjian (March 18, 1879 – October 19, 1974) would attend a church school, work as a clerk in a shop, a clerk at the post office, and finally as a book seller.

Kazanjian did not succeed in trading – not everyone was born to be a businessman. Together with his elder brother, Kazanjian was carried away by various patriotic revolutionary circles. He was fascinated by the liberation struggle of the Armenians. But in Samsun – certainly not the largest and most important city of the empire – the Ottoman police got on the trail of the revolutionary circle Kazanjian was in. Since its members hadn’t taken any active actions, there were no arrests and plunders.

Kazanjian turned 16 – his life experience was minimal, he had no profession, plus he was under the constant threat of arrest. All this combined prompted him to board a ship to America. In America, he settled in a small town in the state of Massachusetts and got a job at a local cable factory. He got some time for learning English – it was easy for him – and by that, he became able to attend a specialized school at Harvard whose diploma would allow him to work as an assistant to a dentist.

The Harvard School of Dental Medicine diploma – albeit not Kazanjian’s bachelor’s diploma – inspired respect in potential employers, but most importantly, Kazanjian was knowledgeable. He found interest in orthopedic dentistry and maxillofacial surgery in general, and in 1912, the board of Harvard named him the best doctor in orthopedic dentistry.

The events of 1915 did not go unnoticed for Kazanjian, and he became one of the founders of a special fund for Armenia and Armenians.

The French government turned to American specialists for help – they really needed facial surgeons to treat WWI soldiers. Kazanjian responded, among others, and ended up in a military hospital almost on the front line.

There was a lot of work, and his name thundered all over France after he had to carry out an operation on two soldiers one after another, all while the chief surgeon of the hospital was mortally wounded.

In just two years, Kazanjian carried out more than three thousand surgeries. In addition to the oath of Hippocrates and the requirements of professionalism, Kazanjian in his work was stimulated by the creation of the Armenian Legion as part of the Allied forces – the legion which, as he hoped, would bring the long-awaited liberation to his homeland. The government awards of France and England (personally on behalf of the King) did not wait long, and Kazanjian became the luminary of European medicine – well, and of American medicine, of course.

However, England and France would not fulfill their obligations under the conditions for the creation and participation of the Armenian Legion, which outraged Kazanjian to the extreme. He relinquished the awards handed to him, carried out the last surgeries – he could not abandon the sick – and left for America.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Kazanjian was a hero, and he was met appropriately. The American government and Harvard University did everything so that Kazanjian could continue to work productively in the theoretical field and in practice. He would become the first American doctor in the field of reconstructive surgery to receive a degree.

Famous British surgeon of Armenian descent Ara Darzi (Terzian), a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his service to medicine and surgery, a member of the House of Lords, and former Minister of Health of the UK, spoke of Kazanjian as follows: “I felt great pride when I learned about Kazanjian. Legends go about him in Britain. I have dreamed that one day, I would be able to carry on the work of my compatriot at a proper level. His works are the bible of modern plastic surgery.”

Sigmund Freud has suffered from cancer – to be more precise, in his jaw – and he was operated on by Kazanjian. The operation was such a success that Freud, as soon as he became able to talk, told the doctor a single word: “Wizard”.

Ruben Gulmisaryan

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