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

IN the second part of our series on Sir Archibald Mcindoe, whose memorial was unveiled in the High Street yesterday, we tell the story of the Guinea Pig Club.  

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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.

On 4 September Mr A McIndoe – his knighthood came post-war – was appointed to take charge of a new purpose-built unit, set up by the Emergency Medical Service, at the Queen Victoria hospital in East Grinstead.

It was one of four outside London which had been selected to deal with the anticipated injuries which might be suffered by airmen involved in aerial combat.

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.

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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.

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.

images-1As they were chatting one day it was suggested that they should form a drinking club to while away the long days as they waited for their injured flesh to heal.

And as guinea pigs were the animals mainly used for medical experiments – as they themselves had been at a time when plastic surgery was in its infancy – they took the name for themselves.

The Guinea Pig Club was duly formed with a committee and Mr McIndoe became its first President.

The club’s Secretary was a pilot with badly burnt fingers, which meant he was unable to keep many minutes, and the Treasurer was a member in a wheel chair whose legs were badly burnt which ensured he could not abscond with any funds.

To qualify as a Guinea Pig patients had to be members of the WW2 Allied Air Force Aircrew, and to have received at least two operations at the hospital for burns or other related crash injuries.

Doctors and surgeons were made Honorary Members, and local benefactors and supporters were to be known as Friends of the Guinea Pig Club.

As the war intensified, the emphasis switched from burned fighter pilots, to burned bomber crews who came in time to represent 80% of the Club’s membership.

At the end of the war there were 649 Guinea Pigs, of whom 62% were British, 20% Canadians, 6% Australian, 6% New Zealand, and 6% from other countries including Poland.

In 1957 a Public house was opened close to the hospital and named The Guinea Pig. The only pub in the world to bear the name, it became the venue for the Pigs’ annual darts match – an important part of their three-day Annual Reunion, known as the Lost Weekend.

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By 2007, in the light of their dwindling numbers, their increasing age and the difficulties of travel it was decided it was time to hold just an AGM and buffet lunch each year – but still in the town the Guinea Pigs regard as their home, and where their long association is proudly remembered on the mayoral chain.

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Dr Sandy Saunders who was inspired by Sir Archie to go into medicine

The Guinea Pig pub has now been demolished to make way for housing but the historic link is still remembered in the renamed Guinea Pig Place.

Sir Archibald himself died in 1960 but 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.

After McIndoe’s death Prince Phillip became the Guinea Pigs’ President, 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, 29 of whom live in the UK.

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.’

Bob Marchant

 

With thanks to Bob Marchant,
Hon Secretary Guinea Pig Club

June 10th, 2014 by