The Guinea Pig Club: A Tale of Fortitude in the Face of Adversity

Wednesday, 14 July, 2021

It was a warm spring day and the year was 1941. A group of RAF pilots sat around a table and played cards. Apart from the bets they pledged, the centrepiece was awash with empty glasses and filled ashtrays. Their backgrounds were different, and their personalities were forever jaded by their personal experiences of war. Yet they had one thing in common; each of them had suffered the most horrific of injuries by fighting against the greatest evil humanity has ever faced. In previous conflicts, surgeons would have thought them beyond saving, but the man of the hour was there. Just as Alan Turing was in the right place at the right time to pioneer codebreaking, Archibald McIndoe was there to save the bodies, and the spirits, of pilots who made such a great sacrifice for serving their country in the battle against tyranny.

        The men who sat around that table decided to form a club, to entrench their solidarity in the face of adversity. Due to the pioneering techniques of “The Boss” or “The Maestro,” as they called McIndoe, they decided to call themselves the Guinea Pig Club. It was 80 years ago this year that these brave men came up with the idea for this club. But their sacrifice, and the genius of the surgeon who saved them, have influence to this day. Every serviceman, servicewoman or civilian that has needed plastic surgery since the Second World War owes their life to this moment. Unfortunately, the term plastic surgery has been tainted by reality TV stars, musicians and other celebrities. What should be made clear is that the work they have had done to alter themselves has only been possible because of McIndoe. He sought to give back the faces and limbs of those that had had theirs burned or ripped off, not those that thought their face could be lifted slightly, or that their tummy could be tucked in. What will also become apparent in this article is that McIndoe, and the town of East Grinstead, not only saved their lives, but also gave the RAF servicemen hope for the future.

When Archibald McIndoe arrived at East Grinstead the Second World War had been raging for three years, and Britain was losing. We had been defeated in Norway, expelled from France and were on the back foot in North Africa. As well as this the ships of the merchant navy, that were vital for supplying the nation, were being shattered by the U-Boats of the Kriegsmarine. It was due to the heroism of the RAF during the Battle of Britain that Hitler was forced to abandon his plans for the invasion of Britain. Many of the airmen who braved the skies had been shot down in the line of duty and suffered horrific injuries in the process.

        Robert ‘Mac’ Mathieson was one such pilot. Returning from Germany after a late flight mission he recalled his fateful experience. “The windscreen shattered and blew away my face. The skin was pushed back and my left eye was destroyed, leaving me blinded.” When Mac regained consciousness, he was blind and his face was heavily bandaged.  Under the care of Sir Archibald in East Grinstead, he underwent ten operations over the course of almost two years. His nightmarish ordeal was just one of many and McIndoe introduced new techniques to save their faces. His speciality was the “Walking-stalk skin flap,” a reconstructive technique in which the skin and soft tissue to be used for the flap is formed into a tubular pedicle and moved from the source to the target site by anchoring at both ends, periodically severing one end and anchoring it closer to the flap target site.

        Plastic surgery had been first used on a wide scale during the First World War, but if the members of the Guinea Pig club had sustained the level of trauma in that war, they would have died. Due to McIndoe’s pioneering methods, such as the above mentioned, he ensured the survival of those that would have been considered unsavable just over twenty years before.

        But McIndoe went further. He knew that his patients injuries went below the flesh, that their experiences would forever affect them emotionally. As such, he went to great lengths to keep up their spirits and provided a semblance of normality for them. For instance, in contrast to the rest of the hospital, he requested his ward to be painted in cheerful greens and pinks. Rather than make them wear the traditional scrubs that patients wore, he allowed them to wear their own clothes and service uniforms. He encouraged the men to go into town and they soon became a regular sight in the local shops and pubs. As people got to know the Guinea Pigs it undermined the long-held belief that disfigured people should be hidden away. East Grinstead residents went out of their way to accept the Guinea Pigs and this is the reason why the town became known as ‘The Town That Didn’t Stare.’

        Mathieson regards McIndoe as a saviour for him and his fellow comrades. “He did change my life, he made life worth living. He formed the Club. It’s a wonderful group of men, helping one another.” The legacy of The Guinea Pig Club can be felt to this day. Anyone who has suffered significant trauma, and have required plastic surgery, owes them a huge debt.

The subject of this article is of particular importance to the author of this article. On January 16th 2016 I felt on top of the world. After recently receiving my undergraduate degree, I was pursuing a masters with full gusto. The cold winter night was offset by the many streetlights, and the delights of my friends curtailed any feelings of spite. A road stretched ahead, tranquil and bare, the red shine of a traffic light gave me cause to feel safe. When venturing forward onto the fateful tarmac, a car sped out from the darkness and shattered my life. While trying to stand the shock kicked in, and I collapsed onto the tarmac with a calamitous thud. Like a dog with worms I scuttled to the sanctuary of the pavement where the ambulance came and whisked me to the hospital. Here they straightened the leg and stabilised it with metal plates, but there was a problem. When the car had struck this construct of flesh and bone, the exit wound had left a gaping hole. 

        Luckily East Grinstead was near, well near enough in the sense that I did not need to be airlifted there. As they syringed oramorph into my mouth, my mother held my hand and dealt with my vice like clutch. I will not bore with too many details thereafter, because that is not the point of this article. The point is that after three major reconstructive surgeries I still had my leg. Despite my pleas to cut the damn thing off, the nurses talked me down and mended my broken spirit. After these surgeries of varying lengths, the surgeons had saved my leg and the nurses my sanity. This is the legacy of Archibald McIndoe and the Guinea Pig Club. Not only did he pioneer the means with which to mend the injuries of his patients, but he set the precedent of ensuring that the spirits of those affected by trauma remained intact and so could go on to face life after the ordeal.

        I also got a taste of the camaraderie of the club when I was finally taken from the ICU into a ward with other patients who had suffered similar trauma. As I was the new guy they asked me what I was in for. After I told them it was because of a hit-and-run, one of them said, “Well you better watch your step from now on kid.” We all roared with laughter and went on to each tell stories, all in a light-hearted manner, about what we had gone through. Due to the pioneering techniques of Archibald McIndoe and the sacrifices of the Guinea Pig Club, we were able to do so relatively intact.

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