Guinea Pig Club reunites – possibly for the final time

Hundreds of World War II airmen who suffered horrendous burns became guinea pigs for a pioneer of plastic surgery, the incredible Archie McIndoe – one of the most innovative surgeons of the twentieth century. He not only rehabilitated the airmen physically but, importantly, psychologically too. As part of their treatment he ensured patients had “crates of beer under their beds” and were allowed to wear their uniforms instead of hospital clothes. Mr McIndoe also supposedly picked nurses according to their good looks as well as their skills – and the patients would go to the local pub with their nurses.

Sir Archibald McIndoe leads the singing

The Guinea Pig Anthem

We are McIndoe’s army,
We are his Guinea Pigs.
With dermatomes and pedicles,
Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs.
And when we get our discharge
We’ll shout with all our might:
“Per ardua ad astra”
We’d rather drink than fight.

The Guinea Pig Club was a drinking group set up by the veterans during their treatment. All members were airmen who had undergone at least two operations at the hands of Mr McIndoe’s team at Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital in East Grinstead, East Sussex, during the war years. Now only 121 of the guinea pigs survive and it is likely that this year’s reunion will be the last.

Wireless Operator Jack Toper (right), now in his 80s, was one of those who was treated by McIndoe after suffering facial burns when his aircraft was shot down and an oxygen cylinder exploded. He had a pioneering pedicle skin graft from his arm to his nose (left), plus many other surgeries.

More of his story can be read here.

Archie McIndoe was a truly remarkable man. A hero of mine.