‘Guinea Pigs’ Befriend Super Surgeon

Archibald McIndoe shares a drink with some of his “boys”
Archibald McIndoe shares a drink with some of his “boys”

by Ray Setterfield

April 12, 1960 — The man considered to be the world’s greatest-ever plastic surgeon – New Zealand-born Sir Archibald McIndoe – died on this day. He worked in England during the Second World War bringing new life and hope to dozens of pilots and other airmen who were horribly burned when their planes were destroyed in air battles.

Most of them were young men, some as young as 17, often burned beyond recognition after being trapped in the cockpits of their fighter planes.

The standard treatment at the time was to cover the wounds with tannic acid, which dried out the affected area so that dead skin could be removed. But it was an extremely painful process that left extensive scarring.

Hunting for a better solution, McIndoe noted that burnt pilots who bailed out into the sea were less scarred, which gave him the idea of bathing patients in saline. It proved to be a much gentler and pioneering treatment, improving healing times and survival rates.

Archibald Hector McIndoe was born in the New Zealand city of Dunedin in 1900. He graduated from the University of Otago Medical School in 1923 and the following year he was awarded the first New Zealand fellowship to the prestigious Mayo Clinic in the United States. There, he developed a reputation as a quick-thinking and skilled surgeon.

Walter Alvarez, a fellow student at the Mayo Clinic, recalls McIndoe’s natural charm and social skills: “Sometimes, when in my home and in a jovial mood, he and one of his Australian friends would take off their shoes, pull their trousers up to their knees and dance for us a Maori haka. He was the sort of man who made his mark and stood out from the crowd.”

A fellow New Zealander and distant relative – Sir Harold Gillies – who became a noted plastic surgeon in the First World War, had set up a private practice in London. In 1930 he invited McIndoe to join him and also offered him a position in the plastic surgery clinic at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. Under Gillies tuition, McIndoe quickly became a leading plastic surgeon.

The website NZ Edge notes: “Sir Harold Gillies — born in Dunedin in 1882, educated in Wanganui and Cambridge — is possibly the greatest figure in New Zealand medical history. He was the first person to apply plastic surgery techniques to the horrific types of injuries that the battlegrounds of WW1 were producing.

“Gillies single-handedly created Britain’s first plastic surgery unit at Aldershot Hospital during World War I and is generally regarded as the man who invented plastic surgery. When McIndoe was greeted by Gillies at his London practice, he would not have known then that this famous figure was about to become his mentor and one of the greatest medical partnerships was about to commence.”

McIndoe was seen as a natural leader of men. With his warm personality he inspired confidence and friendship, his patients referring to him as either “The Boss” or “The Maestro”. In turn, he called his patients his “boys” – some of whom underwent more than 30 operations.

Working at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex, his big enemy was graft rejection. He learnt by experience how to deal with it, his “boys” thus becoming “guinea pigs”. That was how the Guinea Pig Club was born.

To be eligible for the club, members had to be serving airmen who had gone through at least ten surgical procedures. By the end of the war the club had 649 members. Most were British but there were also New Zealanders, Canadians, Australians, Americans, French, Russians, Czechs and Poles.

The club even had its own song – the Guinea Pig Anthem, which began:

We are McIndoe’s army,
We are his Guinea Pigs.
With dermatomes and pedicles,
Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs . . .

McIndoe knew that social reintegration back into normal life was vital for his “boys” and he would regularly join them at social events inside the hospital, take them for out for drinks, and encourage them to get out into the community.

That was a problem because there was a general feeling that the public would be unable to accept the severely disfigured airmen socially. But two friends of McIndoe – Neville and Elaine Blond – persuaded some families in East Grinstead to accept recovering pilots into their homes as guests. Gradually more and more families agreed to help, and the pilots became an accepted part of the town’s community.

East Grinstead became a place the “guinea pigs” referred to as “the town that never stared”.

McIndoe won international recognition for his pioneering work. Knighted in 1947, he took up farming in East Africa, where he helped establish the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF). Back in Britain he was also involved in founding the British Association of Plastic Surgeons (BAPS), and later served as its president.

He maintained regular contact with airmen he had treated, especially in his role as president of the Guinea Pig Club. Membership continued for more than 60 years across 19 countries and five continents. They gathered for the last time in October 2007 by which time worldwide membership had dwindled from over 600 to just 96 and the president at that time was Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

After the war McIndoe turned to cosmetic surgery and opened a practice in London’s famous Harley Street where he treated wealthy actors, models, princes and princesses who wanted to look more beautiful. His clients included the actresses Kay Kendall and Ava Gardner, the Duchess of Windsor Wallis Simpson, and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

As consultant plastic surgeon to the Royal Air Force, McIndoe had worked 15-hour days, seven days a week, without a break for more than six years. his biographer, Hugh McLeave, wrote:

“Tired and overworked, McIndoe purchased a farm in East Africa where he began taking lengthy breaks in order to convalesce, but his workload did not decrease, and the physiological effects of stress were becoming increasingly more apparent. 

“He was now feeling the ill-effects of a life lived at pace, and on a flight back from Spain where he underwent eye surgery he suffered a mild heart attack. On the 12th of April 1960 he died in his sleep, aged 59. Sadly, he never made it back to his native New Zealand.”

His legacy lives on through a new burns research unit – the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation – which was opened at the Queen Victoria Hospital in 1961.

Published: April 3, 2021

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