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Guinea Pigs then… Some of McIndoe’s patients in the 1940s.

Guinea Pigs.… Some of McIndoe’s patients in the 1940s.

The Guinea Pig Club

The world’s most exclusive club – which no-one wanted to join

One of the world’s most exclusive clubs, The Guinea Pig Club, is one which no-one ever elected to join, and indeed would have paid good money to be excused membership of. Its 649 members qualified for one simple reason: because of the burns they received during active war service, and their often experimental treatment at the hands of pioneering plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe, they were indeed medical ‘guinea pigs’. But their unshakeable bond of gratitude to Mcindoe, and their loyalty to each other, has seen them through the past seven decades. McIndoe was the New Zealand-born surgeon whose pioneering treatment of burns victims during the Second World War revolutionised the field of plastic surgery.

The Guinea Pig Club is the name given to the pilots injured in the Battle of Britain who were treated by Sir Archibald McIndoe at the burns unit of Queen Victoria’s Hospital in East Grinstead, West Sussex. The Guinea Pigs were given this name simply because McIndoe had no choice but to try out his ideas on the men as he had no book to refer to or guide him.

The original intake of recovering pilots decided to set up a club and only men who had been patients at the burns unit could join. This decision was taken in July 1941. They chose the title of the club – a sign of the humour the men had as they knew full-well that reconstructive plastic surgery was in its infancy and that they were quite literally guinea pigs for the burns unit. This type of humour even worked its way into the club’s committee selections.

Archibald McIndoe was the club’s first president; the first secretary had had his fingers seriously burned so any notes of club meetings had to be short and were, therefore, easy to read. The first treasurer was a pilot with very badly burned legs – so he could not run away with the club’s funds!

Most of the club were British pilots or bomber crewmen who had sustained burn injuries when their planes had crashed or caught fire in the air. However a number of Guinea Pigs were Canadian, Australian, New Zealanders, American and East European.

By the end of the war their numbers totalled 649, testament to the incredible efforts of Sir Archibald.

In 1940, when the Battle of Britain began, Hurricane and Spitfire pilots, together with other aircrew, suffering from burns were taken to what was to become the world famous hospital in East Grinstead.

On 20th July 1941, some of these airmen were passing their time chatting in a newly erected hut at the hospital when one of them suggested forming a Club. Someone claimed The Guinea Pig Club would be appropriate, after all, Guinea Pig animals were mainly used for medical experimentation and so were the burned airmen, as burns treatment and plastic surgery was then in its infancy.

The treatment they received at the QVH was revolutionary. Saline baths kept their wounds clean, promoted healing and reduced the formation of thick keloid scars.

And cheerful wards, a minimum of hospital discipline and morale-boosting trips into East Grinstead had their own healing influence on the previously fit and healthy young servicemen who found themselves cooped up for months of painful and oft-repeated surgery.

And cheerful wards, a minimum of hospital discipline and morale-boosting trips into East Grinstead had their own healing influence on the previously fit and healthy young servicemen who found themselves cooped up for months of painful and oft-repeated surgery.

But McIndoe didn’t just revolutionaise the treatment for serious burns injuries.

He realized that the men in his care would have to live with their scars, mental and physical, long after the war was over. So to help with their rehabilitation he allowed beer on the wards and insisted they were allowed to wear the RAF uniforms they had so proudly signed up for, not hospital issue wear.

He also encouraged the local community to become involved and to accept ‘his boys’ whenever they left the hospital to go out – a kindness which earned East Grinstead its reputation as ‘the town that didn’t stare’.

And in return his patients they came to believe with absolute confidence that McIndoe’s skill as a surgeon would restore them to a life different from the one they had expected, but one still worth living.

The camaraderie and quite often the black humour was integral to the club and often needed to help the members through difficult times. Not only did they have to overcome the physical  hardship but also psychological. For some members their disfigured features were too much for their wives and girlfriends to cope with and their pre war relationships ended at a most traumatic time. However a number of them ended up marrying nurses from the hospital as they got used to seeing past their injuries.

The psychological support was also needed when the Guinea Pigs left the protection of the hospital ward and re-entered society to face the general public whose responses were often not kind when seeing their disfigurements.

Fortunately many people showed extra ordinary kindness to the Guinea Pigs, particularly people like Neville and Elaine Blond who opened up their house for them to stay in whilst recovering and turned a blind eye (most of the time) to the racket and mischief cause by  the rabble of “Pigs”. After the war many of the Guinea Pigs managed to reintegrate into society and find work though their determination and confidence which was drawn  from the other members.

Renowned wartime surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe (left) toasts a former patient and his bride on their wedding day. The photograph was taken in England in August 1947.

Renowned wartime surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe (left) toasts a former patient and his bride on their wedding day. The photograph was taken in England in August 1947.

Sir Archibald McIndoe was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, 1900. His father John was a printer and mother Mabel an artist. He was the 2nd eldest child of 3 brothers and 1 sister.

His father John died when Sir Archibald was just 15. His strong minded mother Mabel took it upon herself to make sure her children were given solid guidance and support to make sure they strived to achieve without a father figure.

She stressed to him “you can make whatever you like of your life when the time comes, but the preparations for it you must make now” This is something he took very much to heart.

Though it is said years later he would gently mock his mother by asking “what if I had wanted to be a cat burglar. Would the family advisors have bought me a ladder and jemmy”.

Sir Archibald attended Otago Boys’ High School and later won a scholarship at the University of Otago to study medicine. During this time he began to develop a great interest in surgery which he felt was where his future would be.

After his graduation he became a house surgeon at Waikato Hospital but he was already having thoughts as to how he could get to England in order to receive the training that would enable him to become a great surgeon.

However, the opportunity to develop his skills came through a different route. Will Mayo (one of the founders of the American mayo clinic) visited the Otago Medical school and whilst there offered a fellowship to a graduate. Sir Archibald was the recipient of this.

Two weeks before he departed by boat to San Francisco he married Adonia Aitkin whom he would later have two daughters with. Unfortunately his fellowship offer did not include the option of bringing along a wife.

Sir Archibald was to spend five years at the Mayo starting as First Assistant in Pathological Anatomy publishing several papers on chronic liver disease. Fortunately he found a way to bring Adonia over and she found work in the Mayo Pathology department then later playing piano in the hotel opposite earning a better wage than Sir Archibald.

At the outbreak of WWII there were only 4 fully experienced plastic surgeons in Britain-Gillies, McIndoe, Rainsford Mowlem and T.P Kilner. At the request of the government they were divided up to head up 4 separate plastic units to treat the expected influx of injured servicemen from the different branches of the armed services. Sir Archibald moved to the recently rebuilt Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, and founded a Centre for Plastic and Jaw Surgery and dealing with RAF casualties.

As airborne warfare began to deliver its first casualties it became clear that this was the start of a stark new chapter in medical treatment. East Grinstead could expect to treat casualties at an unparalleled volume and severity of injury, the like of which they had never experienced before.

The phrase airman’s burn quickly became a medical term referring to the common similarities of injuries sustained to the face and hands. These injuries were mostly caused when aircraft fuel tanks ignited and pilots were caught up in the inferno before they could parachute to safety. (Spitfires had them positioned just in front of the cockpit).

Most pilots removed their gloves and goggles during flying in order to aid control of the aircraft but unfortunately this also exposed them to even greater levels of injury.

It was also clear to Sir Archibald that current burns treatment techniques were inadequate  particularly the use of Tannic Acid and Tannic Jelly which when applied shrank the tissue around a burn to reduce fluid loss. However this tightening of the tissue of hands and face caused far more problems than benefits. Sir Archibald responded to this by devising new ways to treat burns including use of saline to bathe them and forced the Ministry Of Health to ban Tannic Acid treatments.  He also evolved previous plastic surgery techniques to become far more effective in restoring wounded skin and tissue.

Not only did he push technical innovation but also the ideas of rehabilitation and reintegration of burns survivors back into society. As in 1941 an unusual club was formed at the Queen Victoria Hospital. The Guinea Pig Club, whose members consisted of his recovering patients.

Most of the club would be made up of British pilots or bomber crewmen. However a number of Guinea Pigs were Canadian, Australian, New Zealanders, American and East European. “His boys” were allowed to wear their own service uniforms whilst recovering and a supply of beer was always on tap in the form of the barrel kept in the ward.  The formation of the club was a key part of rehabilitation, using camaraderie and shared experiences of the men to help support each other during their lengthy and painful rehabilitation.

Initially there was resistance from the hospital welfare committee to these unusual arrangements. At one such committee meeting he sat through complaints about the free and easy atmosphere, the language and most of all the drinking. Barely concealing his impatience he responded with a withering response on the matter suitably chastening the committee. He then put out his request that they spread the word that any injured airman in town must not be made to feel uncomfortable and be regarded as “normal young men who happen to be in temporary difficulty”.

For some members of the club their disfigured features were too much for their wives and girlfriends to cope with and their pre war relationships ended at a most traumatic time. However a number of them ended up marrying nurses from the hospital as they got used to seeing past their injuries.

The psychological support was also needed when the Guinea Pigs left the protection of the hospital ward and re-entered society to face the general public whose responses were often not kind when seeing their disfigurements. Visits up to London were often accompanied by horrified onlookers and comments about not letting them out in public.

Fortunately many people showed extraordinary kindness to the Guinea Pigs, particularly people like Neville and Elaine Blond who opened up their house for them to stay in whilst recovering and turned a blind eye (most of the time) to the racket and mischief cause by the rabble of “Pigs”.

By the end of the war their numbers totalled 649, testament to the incredible efforts of Sir Archibald. After the war many of the Guinea Pigs managed to reintegrate into society and find work though their determination and confidence which was drawn from the other members.

They continued to meet annually to celebrate Sir Archibald and the club. For many years The “Guinea Pig” pub in East Grinstead was a focal point for summer reunions followed by a black tie dinner and toasts made to “The Queen”, “Absent Friends” and “The Women” completed with a rendition of the Guinea Pig Anthem. Against the odds many have lived into old age though now the youngest is now in their mid 80s.

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McIndoe maintained regular contact with airmen he treated during the Second World War, especially in his role as president of the ‘Guinea Pig Club’. The club was formed by some of his patients in June 1941 to help pass the time during their long reconstructive treatments.

The committee decided on three levels of membership:

1) The Guinea Pigs – men who had been burned in a plane crash and had had plastic     surgery at Queen Victoria’s Hospital

2) Honorary Members – scientists, doctors and surgeons who had worked at the burns unit at the Queen Victoria’s Hospital.

3) Friends of the Guinea Pig Club – someone who has contributed to the club either financially or in other ways.

The club was meant to have been disbanded when the war ended but it did not. As the war progressed, the type of patient treated at the burns unit changed from fighter pilots to bomber crews. In the final year of the war, 80% of those treated at the burns unit were from bomber crews.

Later, as the bombing programme intensified against the industrial heart of Germany, so the emphasis switched from burned fighter pilots primarily to burned and other bomber crews. In time these patients represented 80% of the total. There were 649 Guinea Pigs at the end of the war and mainly, 62% were British, 20% Canadians, 6% Australians, 6% New Zealanders and 6% from many other countries, including those who escaped the German invasion.

McIndoe soon went from strength to strength in his speciality; and in his remarkable “Guinea-pig Club” he brought into play all his powers of enlisting the full psychological cooperation of his patients in their rehabilitation. Before long he had won international recognition for his work.

He was a member and a vice-president of the Council of the College of Surgeons, and a former president of the British Association of Plastic Surgeons, an honorary fellow of the American College of Surgeons, and an honorary M.D. of the University of Uppsala. He was knighted in 1947.

Around this time he visited East Africa and began farming in the foothills of Mt Kilamanjaro. His time spent in the country led him co-found an air based medical service AMREF to treat the rural population of this area which launched in 1957.

Similarly he and his friends Neville and Elaine Blond were planning the foundations of another medical charity in the form of a new research institute at Queen Victoria Hospital to be launched in 1961. Sadly, at just 59 years old, Sir Archibald died in his sleep on 11th April 1960, one year before the opening of the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation. His ashes were buried in the Royal Air Force church of St Clement Danes.

By 1940 when the Battle of Britain began, a steady stream of Hurricane and Spitfire pilots began to arrive. Typically their faces – unprotected by leather flying gear – were badly burned, as were the hands they had used to try to protect themselves.

By 1940 when the Battle of Britain began, a steady stream of Hurricane and Spitfire pilots began to arrive. Typically their faces – unprotected by leather flying gear – were badly burned, as were the hands they had used to try to protect themselves.

Ms. Moore describes her arrival at a Canadian Army Hospital in East Grimstead, England.

Hilda Moore

Hilda Moore was born in Germany on February 2, 1917 and immigrated to Canada with her family in 1925. She served as a Nursing Sister during the Second World War, mainly in a Canadian military hospital in East Grimstead, England. That hospital specialized in treating victims of severe burns. They referred to themselves as the Guinea Pigs in light of the then-experimental methods of treatment they received. The interview was recorded on June 7, 1997 in Victoria, British Columbia.

“I walked in and, sort of, you, you learn to control your feelings and poker face. I walked in and saw this first kid no nose, no mouth, no lids. I, I wanted to cry, but I stopped and talked to him and he said, “What’s your name?” and I said, “Nursing Sister Empie.” He said, “No, What’s your first name?” I said, “Well we don’t know each other well enough, wait till we get to know each other better” and I said, “How are you feeling?” “Well,” he said, “I’m oh, hands, I don’t feel anything.” His hands were, fingers were off. And what they did was slit up into the hand, and this is what they had and it was just when they pinched you, it was just like a vice. When I turned to go, he pinched me. Tears came to my eyes. It was a dreadful feeling. Turned around, I lost my cool and I said, “Next time you do that I’ll punch you in the nose.” “I ain’t got one.” He didn’t. I said, “I can wait”

You know forty years later when they had the reunion here, all the, all the, the RAF that was in our wing, they had to call themselves limy Canadian before we’d let them into the party. That’s mean. But they’d come over and they’d enjoy it. Forty years later I said, “Well, Wes, Les you’ve got a nose now. You better behave yourself.” He laughed. See this is their, these people had scars on their face, but also on their body. Our biggest job wasn’t taking out sutures or putting bandages, it was to get them out.

The psychological scars were deeper than their… Our biggest job was to get them out to the town, to the pub. This is East Grimstead, known as the, the little town with the big heart. They were just wonderful to these, these, kids that were… They were kids, they were late teens early twenties, and no matter where you went the public and was, at the white hall. They could go in there any time, we’d go in there any time, raise cane and he just took it all. There were two people from the British Embassy or somewhere, it’s, you know all dressed up in tie, suit and tie, came in, and they looked around and they ordered a beer looked around he said, said to Bill, “How, how on earth can you stand these people around?” He said, “I can stand them fine, I can’t stand you” and he threw their money and told them to get out.

This one, like I was saying, the one we, we had to massage the finger, 10 o’clock we got all cleaned up and, and a great big bandage like a big boxing glove. And I got home and the matron, matron phoned said, “Where’s Novel?” I said, “Well, we left him, we fixed up his hand and left him in bed.” “He’s not there,” so she says, “Well, the, the car’s gone out, well you better go find him.” And the guy started in one pub, it was after ten and pubs are closed, he started one pub and he put the bandage around one doorknob and all the way. We finally found him at the — of course there’s a lot of pubs — at the last pub, and his, the bandage was gone.

I picked him up, took him back and we had to do his hand again. And we went to do his hand, he wasn’t there, he was, he was, he was you know, underneath, running away underneath these partitions. There was about that much space under he was scooting under and there we were trying to catch him. I couldn’t, I didn’t get under the, the partition, but the other girl was little and she was chasing, she’d get under there and he’d be under there, they went… Finally one of the orderlies caught him at the end. Took him back and we told him if he moved again we’d tie him up so we put the bandage on and able to save this… See, if he had the two fingers he could do anything. If he had just a thumb he couldn’t, so this is why we didn’t mind spending the extra time trying to save his finger.

Everybody worked together, nobody complained. The only thing is we didn’t have any escorts. We were only the 71 batch of two, two bachelors there and they, they were, all had girlfriends, so we just went out to the parties in a group, had a good time and looked after the guys, made sure that they had fun, pulled them out of the corners.

This one guy had no lips and he had to drink his liquor out of a straw. He was standing in the corner with a drink. The, Sterns, the whisky people, lived in East Grimstead and we traded one case of rum for one case of coke, so we had parties, ’cause they, you couldn’t get coke there and this guy was standing there with rum and coke, drinking through a straw. And they, this is how they managed, they found ways to get over it, which they did.

To have all these people dying for what? Nothing, nothing accomplished. It’s just sad. I was so happy to have the, all these guinea pigs come to Victoria to see something that worked out well and they made it. It was these, the, psychological, inner scars were worse than their outer scars and that’s what we had to…

Our big job was to get them out and to the pubs and we had to make sure they’d come in, go find them, but that was great They got out and they got used to being out and I say that people in East Grimstead were marvellous, just wonderful. They had them out to their homes, and, it, it was just wonderful. Those few months in East Grimstead stand out in my mind. They affected me more than anything else, and we had Czechs, we had Poles, we had a Belgian, and Australians, any, anybody in Britain.

At, at the first reunion here, forty years… ‘Course there’s always a nurse-patient relationship but here we were more… they’d hug us. They wouldn’t let us go. This one young, youngster’s about nine, 18 and he, we had three little boys, that had, civilian boys that had been burnt badly. They found a bullet or something and hit it with a hammer, so they were in there to remove the scar tissue and he got these little guys to push his wheelchair and chase me around, chase me around the hospital so at this meeting here for first time. I was standing talking to some people, all of a sudden somebody grabs me, “Got you.”

He finally got and the matron of course she, she didn’t show up to the meetings until just recently and of course they hugged her. She couldn’t, she, you’re not longer the boss, we’re gonna hug you and we’re gonna kiss you, oh dear. They, in Winnipeg they, at Regina in ’88 they had a bunch of them sitting down there and one of them had a camera, “Come on, come on we got you, you’re gonna kiss everybody and we’re gonna take the picture.” So I had to kiss the whole works, and you know some of the people sitting there were, you know, it’s, its skin, its flesh but this. They had this terrific, dinner at the Regina, at the United Services club, and they had the head of the RCMP, RCMP school, the… All the money went to the burn unit at the Regina and they had the chief burn doctor who is a Chinese and all these important people from the city and the one sitting across from us, we had a mess dinner, 7 courses, wine. I had to cover my wine.

I don’t drink, glass, he poured one. I had to keep it covered, but everybody else was. The guy across from me, he said, “You people know, what you people did is, is unbelievable.” He was crying in his drinks. Yeah, he just couldn’t believe it. He said, “I, I couldn’t imagine anybody doing what you people did,” and of course they were looking at these guys that, they’re still, you, I mean they they didn’t look really normal, you know the camera doesn’t show all these little scars and, and but it was… I mean as I say, that was the highlight of my career.”

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After Sir Archibald died, his legacy lives on not only in the world of plastic surgery and at the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation which bears his name, but in his wisdom and foresight in rehabilitating the airmen in his care, enabling them to carry on with their lives after the war.

Prince Philip became the Guinea Pigs’ President After McIndoe’s death, a post he still holds.

Today the aim of the Club is to ensure that the Guinea Pigs or their widows in need of financial help are taken care for, that medical advice is available if needed, and communication between members of this proud and unique Club is maintained.

Of the original 649 members there are only 58 surviving worldwide,

But the Club will continue as long as the last survivor can raise his glass in memory of Sir Archibald and his team, the Queen Victoria hospital and all the past Guinea Pigs.

As Sir Archibald said in 1944:

‘We are the trustees of each other. We do well to remember that the privilege of dying for one’s country is not equal to the privilege of living for it.’

‘The Guinea Pig Club’ Film on Sir Archibald McIndoe – NZEdge.com

Blond McIndoe Research Foundation – The Guinea Pig Club

The Guinea Pig Club – History Learning Site

Guinea Pig Club – Wikipedia

Sir Archibald McIndoe | NZHistory, New Zealand history online

The Guinea Pig Club | RAF Benevolent Fund

Guinea Pig Club – The History | East Grinstead Museum

Meet the RAF’s last remaining ‘Guinea Pigs,’ whose WWII injuries …

The Guinea Pig Club – The Simon Foundation for Continence

Guinea Pig Club – Edenbridge

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