Robert R. Barron, former Senior CIA Disguise Specialist,
committed to restoring identities through prosthetic devices.

In the News



Washingtonian Magazine, By ROBERT ANDREWS

Kevin Hopkins has his father’s ears. And he has a spy to thank for them.

At birth, one of Kevin’s ears was folded forward, attached to the skin of his cheek. The other ear was smaller than normal. Neither had a visible canal; his hearing difficulties would later require a bone-conducting hearing aid.

Kevin lived a remarkably typical childhood, but as he grew, so did his unhappiness with his ears and his hearing. Every surgical option he and his parents investigated would require months of convalescence, time Kevin was unwilling to take away from school and athletics.

Seeking his own solution, he turned to the Yellow Pages. Finding no listings for “fake ears,” he searched the Internet. After hours exploring blind alleys, the word “prosthetic” finally led him to and Robert Barron.

Barron’s path toward Kevin Hopkins was not so direct, winding through the Marine Corps, the “wilderness of mirrors” of international espionage, and the hot spots of the Cold War.

Born in DuQuoin, Illinois, a small coal-mining town near St. Louis, Barron was fascinated by spatial relationships from early childhood. Without parental nagging, Barron’s room was neat, the clothes and toys arranged just so. His mother, Bette Barron, remembers how, at age five, Robert would “paint” his swing set with water and an old brush “to make it look brand new.” Her son went through boxes of crayons and stacks of coloring books, always careful to stay inside the lines. Along the way, he learned to draw with either hand.

By high school, encouraged by Irene Brock, his art teacher, Barron was captivated by creating the illusion of reality. He worked five months on a landscape of the Grand Canyon, always striving for perfection, teaching himself to render the nuances of light and depth.

He entered the painting 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 organizers, it turned out, had put it in the photography section–where it had won a blue ribbon.

The next way station in Barron’s journey was Southern Illinois University, less than 20 miles from home, where he came under the tutelage of Dr. Dan Bozza, head of the commercial-art department and a demanding taskmaster. Barron graduated in two years, having absorbed everything Bozza could throw at him and more.

After graduation, before diving into a commercial-art career, Barron returned to DuQuoin to help out in the family’s clothing store. Instead of an interlude, the year at home proved to be another turning point.

By 1963, the Vietnam War had crept onto the front pages and into the evening news. Facing a military-service obligation, Barron joined the Marines rather than gamble on the draft. His choice was characteristic: A young man who strove for perfection would find challenge enough in the spit and polish of the Marine Corps.

Contrary to the civilian stereotype of the military–that it stuffs round pegs into square holes–the Marine Corps saw Barron’s talent and put it to use. Within a few months of finishing boot camp, Barron was designing graphic training aids in Okinawa. 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 Barron soon realized that his workday was shaped by the tyranny of the commute. Time spent driving, then looking for a spot in Pentagon parking lots, was time away from the drawing board.

There was nothing he could do about the driving, Barron concluded. But he could do something about the parking. That’s where his talent got him into trouble.

Manufacturing a parking permit was a cinch for an artist who could make a painting of the Grand Canyon look like a color photo. The permit was perfect, but one of Barron’s coworkers spotted the young man parking in rows reserved for the Pentagon’s top brass and squealed.

Late one afternoon Barron stood before a traffic judge and surrendered both his masterpiece permit and a $50 fine. Several days later he got a call at work asking if he could spare an hour to drop by and interview for an artist job at another government agency.

Two men, “Terry” and “Steve,” met Barron in an austere government office. Terry, Barron later found out, headed the CIA’s graphic arts. Steve supervised the crafts used to create the bags of tricks demanded by international espionage. The judge, it turned out, had sent the forged permit to a friend at the CIA; the agency needed someone with Robert Barron’s talent.

After the interview, Barron filled out a lengthy personal-history form and returned to the Pentagon. For weeks he heard nothing. Then he got another phone call and embarked on a series of visits to featureless offices with government-issue furniture. He was given psychological tests, a thorough physical, and a polygraph exam.

Two months later, Barron reported for duty at CIA’s Technical Services Directorate in the old yellow-brick OSS buildings just across 23rd Street, Northwest, from the State Department. This time he had a genuine parking pass.

In many ways, Barron’s first year was typical of that of any new employee breaking into a specialized field–adapting to the culture of a tightly knit organization. But the skills he learned had few legitimate applications in the world outside the CIA: airbrushing photographs, doctoring documents, counterfeiting identity cards.

“I learned by looking over shoulders,” Barron says. “Everybody was helpful. The only people who were standoffish were the handwriting experts. I didn’t get entry to that circle until I’d proven myself in other areas of expertise.”

One of Barron’s “other areas of expertise” was disguise. Disguise, along with travel documentation, is a cornerstone of human intelligence-gathering. Even in the most tightly controlled societies, people still move from place to place, working, playing, and meeting other people. An unremarkable appearance and convincing documents can gain an agent access to secrets hidden from satellite photography and signal-intercept stations. The challenge is perfection a slip-up with the disguise or an outdated visa stamp at a police checkpoint can mean prison or death.

The disguises used by many intelligence agencies fascinated Barron. When not busy working on documents, he developed and perfected his own airbrush-painting techniques. He learned that there were other specialties in the arcane field of disguise: The CIA had craftsmen who were the world’s best at beards, mustaches, wigs, glasses, even teeth.

In the early ’70s, Barron lived in two Far East capitals. Effective disguises were crucial when Caucasian case officers had to meet their Asian agents in places where a white skin and round eyes would be a beacon for a counter-intelligence service or the local KGB rezidentura’s goon squad.

Barron’s “mission impossible” disguises, coupled with a full set ofidentity papers, passport, and “pocket trash”–theater ticket stubs, drugstore receipts, a worn address book–enabled CIA officers to spirit defectors or “blown” agents through border checkpoints or to a waiting plane past the watchful eyes of hostile security guards.

After four years abroad, barron returned to Washington, where he asked to become a full-time disguise specialist. The request wound its way up through the hierarchy and came back approved.

From 1974 on, Barron tackled disguise. He understood that a good disguise was more than makeup, wigs, and beards. Spies depended on illusion. So did actors. So Barron went off to Hollywood, where artists were developing the makeup techniques used in such films as Star Wars.

Barron picked up some ideas but found that Hollywood’s artistry wasn’t directly exportable to CIA field operations. There is a fundamental, you-bet-your-life difference between Hollywood makeup and a CIA disguise. Hollywood’s feature-altering techniques are viewed through a camera lens; imperfections can be concealed by lighting and camera angles. CIA’s disguises must stand up to close scrutiny. A satisfactory disguise must withstand examination from a distance of 12 inches. And while Hollywood’s makeup artists can spend hours at their craft in special studios, CIA disguises must be applied quickly under all sorts of conditions, almost none of them ideal.

CIA case officers–those in the field who “run” agents in the world’s hot spots and back alleys–increasingly turned to Barron for help. Through the years he worked his magic throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Ironically, Barron’s search for perfection turned him toward his second career.

In 1983, looking for new disguise techniques, Barron attended the annual symposium of the Association of Biomedical Sculptors. He thought modern prosthetics might be useful to the CIA.

As Barron watched lecturer after lecturer show slides of the ravages of disease, injury, and flawed genetics, a thought struck him–perhaps the talents he had honed in the agency could contribute to prosthetics. Barron reasoned that if he could disguise someone so well he or she couldn’t be detected by a hostile counterintelligence agent, he ought to be able to help people with disfiguring injuries go about their everyday lives without attracting a second glance.

Just as the makeup techniques he learned in Hollywood had to be adapted for espionage, Barron understood that he’d have to modify the craft he’d developed for the CIA to meet the demands of prosthetics. For one thing, the prostheses generally would be worn for extended periods of time. And where healthy flesh and bone supported the CIA disguises, Barron often would have to build anatomically exact three-dimensional forms to fill voids left by injury or disease.

From his association with the prosthetics community, Barron became friends with some of the nation’s top prosthetic designers. While still at the CIA, he more or less apprenticed himself to them, spending weekends and vacations in their laboratories.

During this time, Barron met his first patient, a man in his fifties who had lost an eye and much of the surrounding cheek and nasal passages to cancer. The void was so extensive that surgical reconstruction had been ruled out.

The first task was to build a three-dimensional model of the cavity where the eye and cheek should be. Barron filled the damaged area with Geltrate, a material similar to that used by dentists to make impressions. Barron had to ensure that the Geltrate covered the area but did not get into the open nasal passages.

The Geltrate jelled in three minutes, and Barron removed it from his patient. From this model, Barron fashioned a plaster mold, which he then filled with a layer of acrylic resin. When dry, it formed an acrylic sculpting shield that fit in the cavity. The shield made a pocket into which Barron packed a special clay.

Working with precise measurements of the patient’s face, Barron positioned a prosthetic eye in the clay. The eye would not move with the real eye, but in all other respects it would look the same. Barron photographed the real eye, then reversed the negative to put the real eye in place of the missing eye. He then made minute adjustments of the prosthetic eye’s placement so that it reflected light in the same way as its mate.

With the prosthetic eye in place, Barron used sculpting tools to build up the cheek with more clay, creating a slight bagging under the eye, crow’s feet, and an eyelid. Finally, the first session with the patient was over. The clay mockup, realistic in every way except color and skin texture, filled out the void in the face.

From the mockup, Barron created another mold into which he poured a medical grade silicone, adding enough color to make the mixture slightly translucent. Out of the mold came the facial prostheses-to-be, about the size of a man’s palm.

At the patient’s second session, Barron fit the silicone prosthesis into place. This was the patient’s first look at the device that would make his face whole again. Working under lighting that allowed no shadows, Barron now made use of his artistry and eye for realism, hand-tinting the prostheses with a cosmetic pigment to match the patient’s skin coloring.

One more trip to the lab was necessary to heat-cure the tinted material and to airbrush on a layer of clear silicone to seal in the tint and to create the vital illusion of depth.

When Barron had finished, the patient got up and looked in the mirror. He looked again. He turned to Barron, then back to the mirror again. He smiled, then laughed, and then cried for joy.

“I’ll remember that man’s expression as long as I live,” says Barron.

At Barron’s retirement in 1993, then-CIA director James Woolsey awarded him the Career Intelligence Medal. He described Barron as “an extraordinary artist and master of the highly specialized craft of personal disguise, [whose] competency and artistic skills were unmatched.”

Many CIA officers like Robert Barron, spend their lives under deep cover. If they decide to start a second career, they often are unable to use their contacts and legally prohibited from explaining their experience and talents in a résumé or interview. Recognizing this, CIA offers programs to help smooth the transition in from the cold.

Barron used his transition period to establish Custom Prosthetic Designs and begin his career as an anaplastologist. He designed his own laboratory, began seeing patients in Reston’s Medical Plaza Building, and set out to build his referral contacts in the medical community.

“I thought I was going to set the world on fire,” Barron says. But despite his thorough planning, Barron faced hard times. He had only three before and after photos to show. Doctors were reluctant to refer patients whose disabilities they couldn’t treat surgically, especially to someone whose past was a blank page. Barron refused to drop even a hint as to what he’d been doing for the previous 24 years.

“Knocking on doors was the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” says Barron, who had matched wits with the KGB and other intelligence agencies around the world. But he persisted, introducing himself to one physician after another.

He found an early supporter in Craig Dufresne, a Washington reconstructive surgeon who had been seeking better prostheses for cases in which surgery had proven ineffectual or in which patients, sometimes elderly, were unwilling to undergo multiple surgeries. He was impressed with Barron’s talent and began referring patients to him.

“Bob fills an important and long-empty niche,” he says. “He makes it possible to join medicine and art–surgery and sculpture.” Dr. Dufresne calls Barron’s prostheses “miracles for individuals where little hope was present before.”

In time Barron’s referral circle expanded. With dentists Michael Singer and Jeffrey Lane, Barron 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. Barron then designs and sculpts the prosthesis, which may be clipped to the implant or fastened with small magnets. With such osseointegrated implants, the patient can wear a prostheses for hours, even swimming, without worrying about adhesive loosening. Today Barron, Lane, and Singer treat facial patients from around the world.

Barron has developed an array prostheses for fingers, noses, eyes, and ears. Often his work aids in restoring lost functions as well as appearance. His prostheses for patients with missing fingers protect sensitive nerve endings while providing a degree of tactile sensitivity. One Fairfax patient reports that her prostheses conduct pressure and vibration so well “it almost seems as though I have feeling in the fingertips.” Some recipients of Barron’s finger prostheses have been able to type and play the piano again.

Radical surgeries to treat cancer of the eye and surrounding tissue often leave voids that can be addressed by prostheses alone. Barron’s orbital prostheses not only restore the facial contours around the eye but also protect tissues exposed by surgery. If surgery has opened the nasal cavity, the patient may be having trouble speaking clearly because speech resonance has been interrupted. The prostheses maintains the moisture of facial cavities and helps restore normal speech resonance.

Many of Barron’s referrals have been patients with facial defects resulting from cancer surgery on the nose. In some cases, all or part of the nose has been removed. Here, too, Barron’s prostheses protect the delicate remaining structures while keeping the mucous membranes lining the nasal passage moist and free from irritation. The prostheses also duplicates the functioning of the nose by directing air flow and restoring speech resonance.

Replacing an ear is a complex procedure. The prosthesis must be shaped to direct sound waves into the auditory canal while maintaining a proper protective environment for the inner-ear membranes. These prosthetics also support glasses and hearing aids if necessary.

Kevin Hopkins had his first meeting with Robert Barron in March 1998. Kevin and his father, Robert, made the drive down from New Jersey after an exchange of e-mails.

Barron examined Kevin’s ears for what seemed to Kevin an agonizingly long time. The smaller-than-normal ear posed a challenge different from that of the ear that was folded forward.

Finally, Barron smiled. “I can help you with this,” he said.

Barron motioned toward Robert Hopkins. “We’ll take an impression of your father’s ears and sculpt them to fit over your existing ears. Your search is over.”

Tears welled in Robert Hopkins’ eyes and ran down his cheeks. Alarmed that he might have said something inappropriate, Barron sought to reassure him. Hopkins waved Barron off and smiled.

“When Kevin was born,” Robert Hopkins explained, “I thought, ‘If only I could give my ears to him.’ “Hopkins paused. “You’ve just made my dream come true.”