Guinea Pig Club
Hero’s One & All
The Guinea Pig Club, established in 1941, was a social club and mutual support network for British and allied aircrew injured during World War II. Its membership was made up of patients of Archibald McIndoe at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, Sussex, who had undergone experimental reconstructive plastic surgery, generally after receiving burns injuries in aircraft. The club remained active after the end of the war, and its annual reunion meetings continued until 2007.
The club was formed on McIndoe’s initiative in June 1941 with 39 patients, primarily as a drinking club. The members were aircrew patients in the hospital and the surgeons and anaesthetists who treated them. Aircrew members had to be serving airmen who had gone through at least two surgical procedures. By the end of the war the club had 649 members.
The name “Guinea Pig” – the rodent species commonly used as a laboratory test subject – was chosen to reflect the experimental nature of the techniques and equipment used for reconstructive work carried out at East Grinstead. The treatment of burns by surgery was in its infancy, and many casualties were suffering from injuries which, only a few years earlier, would have led to certain death.
The original members were Royal Air Force (RAF) aircrew who had severe burns, generally to the face or hands. Most were British but other significant minorities included Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and by the end of the war Americans, French, Russians, Czechs and Poles. During the Battle of Britain, most of the patients were fighter pilots, but by the end of the war around 80% of the members were from bomber crews of RAF Bomber Command.
Before the war the RAF had made preparations by setting up burns units in several hospitals to treat the expected casualties. At East Grinstead, McIndoe and his colleagues, including Albert Ross Tilley, developed and improved many techniques for treating and reconstructing burns victims. They had to deal with very severe injuries: one man, Air Gunner Les Wilkins, lost his face and hands and McIndoe recreated his fingers by making incisions between his knuckles.
Aware that many patients would have to stay in hospital for several years and undergo many reconstructive operations, MacIndoe set out to make their lives relaxed and socially productive. He gave much thought to the reintegration of patients into normal life after treatment, an aspect of care that had previously been neglected. They were encouraged to lead as normal a life as possible, including being permitted to wear their own clothes or service uniforms instead of “convalescent blues”, and to leave the hospital at will. Local families were encouraged to welcome them as guests, and other residents to treat them without distinction:
East Grinstead became “the town that did not stare”. The Guinea Pig Club was part of these efforts to make life in hospital easier, and to rebuild patients psychologically in preparation for life outside. There were even barrels of beer in wards to encourage an informal and happy atmosphere.
Later, many of the men also served in other capacities in RAF operations control rooms, and occasionally as pilots between the surgeries. Those unable to serve in any capacity received full pay until the last surgical operations and only then were invalided out of the service. McIndoe also later loaned some of his patients money for their subsequent entry into civilian life.
The club was not disbanded at the end of the war, but continued to meet for over sixty years, offering a sense of community and practical support to former patients. Annual meetings at East Grinstead attracted visitors from all over the world. McIndoe had been elected life president at the club’s foundation: after his death in 1960, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, became president. Geoffrey Page was the first chairman.
In 2003, there were around two hundred survivors; by 2007 there were 97 (57 in Britain; 40 elsewhere in the world), their ages ranging from 82 to 102. The last annual reunion was held in 2007, and attracted over 60 attendees, but in view of the frailty of many of the survivors the decision was then taken to wind the club down.
By April 2015, there were believed to be 29 survivors.
Sixteen members of the club wrote books about their experiences, some of them during the war. The best known, and most influential in raising public awareness of McIndoe’s work, was Richard Hillary‘s The Last Enemy, originally published in the United States as Falling Through Space (1942).
One of the local pubs in East Grinstead adopted the name “The Guinea Pig”. The pub closed in 2008 and was demolished in 2009 to make way for a social housing development named Guinea Pig Place.
The Guinea Pig Anthem
The club anthem was adapted from the World War I song “Fred Karno’s Army“, and sung to the tune Aurelia by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (best known as the tune of the popular hymn “The Church’s One Foundation“). The final line of the second verse is an example of a mind rhyme.
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.
John Hunter runs the gas works,
Ross Tilley wields the knife.
And if they are not careful
They’ll have your flaming life.
So, Guinea Pigs, stand ready
For all your surgeon’s calls:
And if their hands aren’t steady
They’ll whip off both your ears.
We’ve had some mad Australians,
Some French, some Czechs, some Poles.
We’ve even had some Yankees,
God bless their precious souls.
While as for the Canadians –
Ah! That’s a different thing.
They couldn’t stand our accent
And built a separate Wing.
We are McIndoe’s army,
(As first verse)
- George Bennions
- Robert Boscawen
- Jimmy Edwards
- Bill Foxley
- Tom Gleave
- Richard Hillary
- Jackie Mann
- Geoffrey Page
Joseph Randolph Richard’s novel Incendo (2015) tells the story of a badly burned pilot and his membership of the club