Jacqueline Heron Wray
Archie McIndoe. A man of many faces
Updated: May 31, 2022
Archie McIndoe, the man who restored the minds and bodies of WW2 pilots.
Archie McIndoe was born on the 4th of May 1900, in Dunedin New Zealand. His father was born in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, Scotland, on 29th November 1858. John, a printer, was married to Mabel Hill, a painter known for landscapes, portraits, and floral still life. Archibald’s brother John, following in his mother's footsteps, became an artist and ultimately took over the McIndoe family printing firm.
Archie studied medicine and became a skilled plastic surgeon who would change the lives of many disfigured airmen during WW2 with his innovative and pioneering work in reconstructive plastic surgery and treatment of burns which underpinned techniques still used today.
Archibald McIndoe was awarded with a Fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in America in 1924 and worked as First Assistant in Pathological Anatomy. He wrote and published several papers. His success in this field brought him to the attention of Lord Moynihan, a renowned British abdominal surgeon, who suggested that McIndoe should pursue a career in Great Britain.
McIndoe became a consultant in plastic surgery for the Royal Air Force in 1938 and arrived at The Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead in September 1939
Many of his patients were Spitfire and Hurricane pilots who, after being on the receiving end of enemy fire as they battled in the skies, became trapped in the cockpit, swallowed up and engulfed by flames raging forth from bullet-ridden fuel tanks. The burns they suffered are almost inconceivable, the pain unimaginable.
Archie’s pioneering work included saline baths to promote healing after he discerned that pilots who landed in the sea healed much more quickly than those who came down on dry land. The immersion in saline also improved patient survival rates. McIndoe also refined the tube pedicle technique invented by Harold Gillies. (Sometimes called a ‘walking-stalk skin flap)
The men who survived these catastrophic accidents were grievously disfigured. They were required to stay in hospital for several years, undergoing numerous reconstructive operations. They needed emotional support before meeting wives and families for the first-time following surgery. McIndoe knew that preparing the men for reintegration into so-called normal life was just as important as treating their physical injuries and complications. McIndoe and his team improved and developed reconstructive surgery techniques for severely burned faces and hands. One example is Air Gunner Les Wilkins who lost both his hands and face. Archie developed a procedure where he made incisions between the knuckles creating ‘fingers’ for Les.
McIndoe, as well as being a brilliant surgeon, recognised how important it was to rehabilitate the war-torn men. Ingeniously, the patients were allowed to wear their own uniforms as opposed to hospital issue garments and were supported in every way to help them lead as normal a life as possible. They were encouraged to leave the hospital and to integrate with the local community. Archie, with the help of his friends Neville and Elaine Blond, encouraged the people of East Grinstead to welcome ‘his boys’ and to invite them into their homes. East Grinstead became known as ‘the town that didn’t stare’.
In 1941, a support group was formed, initially as a drinking club, providing barrels of pale ale, (which also helped to assist with dangerous dehydration issues associated with burns.) for the members.
Rules were simple, members had to be serving airmen who had had at least two experimental reconstructive operations.
It became known as ‘The Guinea Pig Club’ because the men were receiving treatment that was experimental. The hospital affectionately became known as ‘the Sty’
The original members were RAF airmen. Most were British but some were Canadian, Australian, New Zealanders, Polish Russian, Czech, and French. In 1943 a Canadian wing was built instigated by the Canadian Air Force and paid for by Canada. During the Battle of Britain, most of the patients in ‘The Sty’ were fighter pilots, but eventually, men from RAF Bomber Command were admitted, a minority of which had maxillofacial damage after crash landings. Another small group consisted of men from the army and navy.
The Guinea Pig Club was established to make institutional life easier, to rebuild confidence, and prepare the men psychologically for life outside the hospital environment again in a cheerful, relaxed environment. Each of the men knew they were ‘just a guinea pig for the maestro’. They also knew that the maestro was interested not only in their physical recovery but just as importantly, their emotional, rational, and spiritual recovery.
By the end of the war, the Guinea Pig Club had 669 members. After the war ended, the members continued to meet annually until 2007.
Archie McIndoe was awarded a CBE in 1944 and was knighted in 1947 for his ‘remarkable work on restoring the minds and bodies of burnt young pilots of the Second World War through his innovative reconstructive surgery techniques’
He remained President of the Guinea Pig Club until his premature death, aged fifty-nine, on the 11th of April 1960. He died in his sleep of a heart attack.
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J. Heron Wray. March 2019.