It started out as a career crafting disguises for undercover spies in the CIA. Now Robert Barron uses his incredible talent to build artificial features that give disfigured patients back their faces - and their identities. Eimear Vize spoke to the master of disguises about his remarkable work.
“It’s not Mission Impossible; it’s mission possible,” says Robert ‘Bob’ Barron, capturing in that succinct remark the essence of his work for the past four decades, as a former CIA Master of Disguise creating new faces for undercover spies, and now bringing the disfigured out of hiding with his hyper realistic silicone prosthetics.
These life-like creations abound in his sophisticated laboratory in Ashburn, Virginia, not far from CIA headquarters where he once worked in secret. Since he retired in 1993, Bob’s second career is creating custom-made prosthetic devices for patients with conditions resulting from trauma, disease, and congenital defects.
The detail of his natural looking prosthetics – whether a finger or hand, an ear, nose, orbit with ocular, full or partial face - is a marriage of artistry and science fused by his natural talents and more than twenty years as the Central Intelligence Agency’s top Advanced Disguise Specialist.
Yes, as it happens, the CIA really does have agents traversing the globe undetected behind other people’s faces á la Mission Impossible. In a clandestine world where lives depend on meticulous detail and realism, Bob’s lifelike facial prosthetics are indistinguishable from real human features.
Circumstances may have changed but this self-professed “little old country boy” is still saving lives. He knows that some of his severely disfigured patients have contemplated and even come close to committing suicide, until Bob’s state-of-the-art prosthesis made them whole again and gave them a new lease on life.
“There came a point in my career with the CIA when I thought to myself, Bob, if you can put someone in hiding, you can bring someone out of hiding. If you can change someone’s identity then you can give some person their identity back – It’s not Mission Impossible; it’s mission possible.”
However, it is impossible not to be drawn into the fascinating world of this candid and empathic man. He recounts for Scope tantilising snippets from his former covert existence in the "wilderness of mirrors" of international espionage, along with disturbing accounts of the tragedies and pain visited on some of his patients: thankfully, with happy endings.
Realism, he says, is the common thread that connects these two remarkable careers. “Agents depend on the realism of that disguise to keep them alive, and their lives would definitely be in jeopardy if that disguise attracted attention; you want them to distract attention. I have to say that I never lost an agent. There was a lot riding on my shoulders to keep that agent alive, especially when they were going into an area where they knew that they wouldn’t come back if they were caught. I must have made a pretty big name for myself when I was in the CIA because all the agents wanted me to work on them,” he laughs softly. “Sometimes I had to go to where they were to fit their disguise, and it was dangerous. It was challenging and dangerous and it was fun. I would definitely do it all over again. If it hadn’t been for the Agency I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.
“I put all my effort and my ability and my creativity, everything into my prosthetic devices just as if I am saving a life. And I have saved lives in this arena as well because there have been patients that have contemplated suicide. Every prosthetic device is unique and it takes it’s own amount of time and it demands the inspiration and the creativity, so that’s what I build into my prosthetic devices through decades of research and development. If this job were easy everybody would be one.”
Born in Du Quoin, Illinois, a small coal-mining town near St Louis, Barron’s gift for creating photo-realistic art surfaced at an early age. In high school he worked five months on a painting of the Grand Canyon he planned to enter in the annual state fair's art contest. When he went to see it on display, his heart sank when he couldn't find it among the other paintings. Contest organisers, it turned out, had put it in the photography section - where it had won a blue ribbon.
After completing a degree for commercial art at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Barron spent four years in the Marine Corps. He left as a sergeant in 1967 and was offered a job at the Pentagon in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations, where he became art director of Direction, the Navy's public-affairs quarterly.
Working in the Pentagon was exciting for a while, but Bob soon realised that his workday was shaped by the tyranny of the commute, made all the more intolerable by the daily hunt for a spot in the crowded Pentagon parking lots. So, putting his talents to work, Barron forged a perfect General rank auto pass and parked near the building.
The permit was perfect, but one of his co-workers spotted the young man parking in rows reserved for the Pentagon's top brass and squealed. He was fined and fired. But his masterpiece forgery, it appears, found its way into CIA Headquarters and impressed the right people, who couldn’t let this canny talent go to waste. Days later, young Robert was called to an interview and recruited to the Agency.
He spent years training how to completely alter a person’s appearance by crafting imitation ears, noses, eyebrows, moustaches and complete masks. Barron learned how to interchange the colors of skin on black, white and Oriental spies. He learned how to make silicone look exactly like living skin.
After a long, distinguished career, the details of which are still classified, Bob was awarded "The Career Intelligence Medal”. On his retirement, former CIA Director, James Woolsey, described him as “an extraordinary artist and master of the highly specialised craft of personal disguise…the ideal by which all other disguise officers were judged in the area of advanced disguise fabrication. His creativity and initiative were extremely instrumental in the research and development of what the silicone mask is today”.
Still young, Bob knew how he was going to spend his retirement, and it certainly wasn’t by abandoning his hard-earned craft.
“In 1983 I was still with the CIA as their senior disguise specialist and we were starting to look around for more sophisticated disguises. The agents would rely on the disguises to keep them alive, and the realism is what they were looking for. You have to pass the closest of scrutiny, about six to 12 inches. We had to see if we could better our product so that the agents’ lives were not jeopardised.
“I was undercover at the time and they sent me to a Biomedical Sculptors Association’s seminar in New York to see if the commercial field had a product that we could use to better our product. As it turns out the CIA was about five years ahead of the world. But when I saw all the disfigurements of people who had no nose because it was eaten up by cancer or their eye – orbital with ocular – was gone because a tumour had formed behind the eye and had to be removed. And burn survivors without a nose and without ears. And I thought, my goodness Bob look at this, if you can put someone in hiding, you can bring someone out of hiding. If you can change someone’s identity then you can give that person his or her identity back. That was nine years before I retired, and I already knew what I was going to do for my second career,” he tells Scope.
He established Custom Prosthetic Designs Inc (www.prosthesis.com), specialising in prosthetic replacement of facial and digital anatomy. Made of silicone and painstakingly hand painted, Barron’s removable prosthetic ears, noses, fingers and faces are nothing short of transformational. Subtle changes in skin tone, texture, and even tiny, hair-thin veins are carefully recreated.
As his business as a certified clinical anaplastologist started to take off, he teamed up with two highly respected specialists – Dr Craig Dufresne, a renowned Plastic Surgeon, and Dr Michael Singer, a top Prosthodontist – and began working on state-of-the-art technology in which titanium screws are surgically embedded in the patient's bone structure at the site of the defect. A retaining substructure is attached directly to the implants. Bob then designs, sculpts and tints the prosthesis, which may be clipped to the implant or fastened with small magnets. With such osseointegrated implants, a patient can wear the prosthesis for hours, even swimming, without worrying about adhesive loosening.
After more than 15 years in this business, Bob has acquired some very strong opinions about certain practices in plastic surgery, and tends to express his views rather passionately. “The corrective surgery that fails all the time is ear reconstructive surgery. I think it should be abolished, I think it is a medical abuse and I think it is criminal,” he chides.
Many of Barron’s patients, especially younger children, have undergone extensive reconstructive surgery to correct their ear deformity, whether due to trauma, disease or a birth defect such as Microtia, Artesia, Goldenhar Syndrome, and Treacher Collins Syndrome. Some have gone through so much surgery with such disappointing results that they have lost their faith in medicine.
“There is no surgeon on this good green earth who can reconstruct an ear. I’m sure they are good at other things but they should stop this. Kids suffer more, psychologically, with botched ear reconstructive surgery than Microtia. I feel that the doctors who perform this surgery, their passion is in their wallet,” he rebukes.
As Bob’s caseload increased, so to did his reputation. He was featured in dozens of respected publications, on major TV shows including Oprah, Montel, and 60 Minutes, and in documentaries for the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. And he is repeatedly approached with million-dollar job offers from major Hollywood movie moguls, including John Chambers, a pioneer in special effects makeup.
“I wouldn’t fit into the plastic world in Hollywood at all, that’s why I stayed away from it. Sure, I don’t make a fortune off of someone’s misfortune but I get a great high in changing that person’s life and making that person whole again. There is no better feeling. I mean, who are we if we’re not helping someone? What’s the purpose in life if we’re not helping someone; that’s the way I look at it. I feel that the good Lord gave me a talent and now he’s looking down on me and saying, okay Bob, I’m going through you to help others, and I believe that 100 per cent.”
One of Bob’s early accomplishments was a complete face for Jim Alexander of Detroit who was trapped in a car fire that burned away his entire face. Jim survived dozens of operations and painful skin grafts, was blind from his injuries and lived as a hidden recluse, not wanting to hear children scream at his sight.
“I made a full mask for him so he could interact in public without having the embarrassing stares and the unwanted attention going to his differences. That was a very, very complicated thing to do but it increased his quality of life dramatically,” Bob recalls.
After numerous operations Jim’s sight was restored. He remained Bob’s happiest achievement until, one evening, five years later, Jim Alexander fell asleep smoking in bed and burned to death.
The former Agent has made ears and noses for Pentagon men and women burned in the September 11th terrorist attack in 2001. And he also offered his services free for survivors of the two World Trade Centers who lost ears, faces and hands.
Among his most striking case to date was a horrifically mutilated woman from Pakistan. Zahida Parveen, a beautiful 24-year-old woman was three months pregnant when she was attacked and tortured by her husband, a barber, in a fit of unfounded jealousy. He gagged and bound her and hung her upside down from the ceiling. He brutally beat her with a wooden axe handle before trading his axe for his barber’s straight razor. Then he cut off most of her ears, sliced off her nose and finally gouged out her eyes with a metal rod.
He left her for dead; another of the many hundreds of mostly unpunished yearly honor killings in Pakistan. Though she survived with devastating injuries, Zahida was most upset by her little children screaming every time they saw her destroyed face.
In 2001, Dr Nasim Ashraf, a kidney specialist and Pakistani expatriate living in the US, arranged for Zahida to have her face reconstructed. She was flown to Washington where she met Robert Barron and Drs Dufresne and Singer.
They worked on her for six hours. They fabricated the eyes and the skeletal foundation of the nose for Zahida, and Barron replaced her nose and ears. She returned to Pakistan, blind, but content, with her children wanting to hug her again.
And Bob tells Scope that he is facing another massive challenge in the coming weeks when he begins the complicated process of crafting a new face for a cancer survivor, who lost most of his features through radical surgery to save his life.
“We are working on someone right now, as we speak, we’ve been working on this patient for three years, and we are reconstructing his face. He is a cancer patient, half of his face was lost, his nose, cheeks, eyes, and some of his mouth: literally the centre of his face.
“Craig and Michael have been constructing the ‘scaffolding’, so to speak, that will support his new face. Now it’s just about my turn. Next week I will take an impression of the face, and then I have to sculpt the new face - I use clay, initially, I don’t use wax because after your finished it looks like a woodcarving. I’ll turn that sculpture into silicone and tint the prosthesis to the surrounding tissue. I have to say I mastered the technique of making silicone look like skin, and that was in the Agency, it was research and development, this just didn’t happen overnight,” he stresses.
This painstaking transformation will be documented step-by-step by High Definition Net – the world’s only all high definition national television network.
Bob is unfazed by the habitual glare of the media spotlight on his work. “I’m just a little old country boy. I’m from Du Coin, Illinois, a town of 6000 people. I don’t let this publicity get to me, I’m still who I use to be a long time ago and I don’t let all this go to my head.
“The purpose of my second career is to give someone back the quality of life they had before their differences. My priority is always the patient’s expectations, to really fulfill their needs. The patient’s main objective is to return to society no longer embarrassed by the stares and unwanted attention produced by their differences. There really, really is no better feeling than when you can do something like that for someone.”