In 1941, Sir Archibald McIndoe created The Guinea Pig Club. It was made up of the recovering pilots and bomber crew from the Allied air force that he had treated for burns. The chosen name reflected the pioneering nature of Sir Archibald’s work, which included many procedures and treatments that were completely new to plastic surgery, devised to respond to the unprecedented forms of injury that were being witnessed at the hospital.
Most of the men were British, although a number of Guinea Pigs were Canadian, American, Australian, New Zealanders and Eastern European. Many had fought in the Battle of Britain, including RAF Flight Lieutenant Richard Hilary, whose book ‘The Last Enemy’ documented his experiences.
Members were allowed to wear their own service uniforms while recovering and a supply of beer was always on tap in the form of the barrel kept in the ward. Initially, there was resistance from the hospital welfare committee to these unusual arrangements. At one such committee meeting, McIndoe sat through complaints about the free and easy atmosphere, the language and most of all the drinking. Barely concealing his impatience, he responded with a withering response on the matter suitably chastening the committee. He then put out his request that they spread the word that any injured airman in town must not be made to feel uncomfortable and be regarded as “normal young men who happen to be in temporary difficulty”.
The formation of the club was a key part of rehabilitation, with the men using camaraderie, quite often black humour, and shared experiences to help support each other. Not only did they have to overcome the physical hardship but also the psychological. For some members, their disfigured features were too much for their wives and girlfriends to cope with and their pre-war relationships ended at a most traumatic time. However, a number of them ended up marrying nurses from the hospital.
The psychological support was also needed when the Guinea Pigs left the protection of the hospital ward and re-entered society to face the general public, whose responses weren’t always kind. Fortunately, many people showed extraordinary kindness, such as Neville and Elaine Blond, who opened up their house for them to stay in while recovering and turned a blind eye (most of the time) to the racket and mischief.
By the end of the war their numbers totalled 649, testament to the incredible efforts of Sir Archibald. Many of the Guinea Pigs managed to reintegrate into society and find work, though their determination and confidence drawn from the other members. They continued to meet annually after the war to celebrate Sir Archibald and the club. For many years, The Guinea Pig pub in East Grinstead was a focal point for summer reunions, followed by a black tie dinner, closing with a rendition of the Guinea Pig anthem. Their number declines but surviving members still meet for a summer outing and Christmas Dinner.