Sir Archibald McIndoe was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, 1900. His father John was a printer and mother Mabel an artist. He was the 2nd eldest child of 3 brothers and 1 sister.
His father John died when Sir Archibald was just 15. His strong minded mother Mabel took it upon herself to make sure her children were given solid guidance and support to make sure they strived to achieve without a father figure.
She stressed to him “you can make whatever you like of your life when the time comes, but the preparations for it you must make now” This is something he took very much to heart.
Though it is said years later he would gently mock his mother by asking “what if I had wanted to be a cat burglar. Would the family advisors have bought me a ladder and jemmy”.
Sir Archibald attended Otago Boys' High School and later won a scholarship at the University of Otago to study medicine. During this time he began to develop a great interest in surgery which he felt was where his future would be.
After his graduation he became a house surgeon at Waikato Hospital but he was already having thoughts as to how he could get to England in order to receive the training that would enable him to become a great surgeon.
However, the opportunity to develop his skills came through a different route. Will Mayo (one of the founders of the American mayo clinic) visited the Otago Medical school and whilst there offered a fellowship to a graduate. Sir Archibald was the recipient of this.
Two weeks before he departed by boat to San Francisco he married Adonia Aitkin whom he would later have two daughters with. Unfortunately his fellowship offer did not include the option of bringing along a wife.
Sir Archibald was to spend five years at the Mayo starting as First Assistant in Pathological Anatomy publishing several papers on chronic liver disease. Fortunately he found a way to bring Adonia over and she found work in the Mayo Pathology department then later playing piano in the hotel opposite earning a better wage than Sir Archibald.
When his fellowship was completed he was offered a post of Assistant Surgeon where he developed his surgical skills further. His time spend studying in his fellowship had given him insight into liver function which enabled him to develop a new procedure for dealing with carcinomas on the liver. And in 1930, he visited Chicago to demonstrate the new surgical technique.
About ten days later he received a call from one of the doctors who had seen his demonstration. He asked if he could carry out abdominal surgery on a patient (a Mr Mancini) who required complete discretion and would pay a fee of at least five times the expected rate. The patient arrived with a notable entourage in a fleet of Cadillacs.
After successful surgery the patient was whisked away despite having not fully recovered. Before leaving one of the men said “Al told me to say thank you for all you did for his kid brother” and handed Sir Archibald an envelope containing $1000. Sir Archibald had just operated on the younger brother of infamous gangster Al Capone.
By this time he had achieved status, security and a predictable future; however Sir Archibald was uncomfortable with such certainty and became unhappy with his situation.
Another spectator of the Chicago demonstration was Lord Moynihan, at that time the president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
He also visited the Mayo Clinic and whilst touring the theatres fist observed the removal of a spinal tumour by a nervous young surgeon unsettled by his presence, then they moved on to watch another stomach operation being undertaken by Sir Archibald.
Not feeling particularly welcoming to an ever crowded theatre. Without looking up from the operating table Sir Archibald remarked “this place is starting to feel like the Roxy at talent night” at which point the visiting party moved on with Lord Moynihan exclaiming “By god, first I see a high school boy doing a spinal tumour and then I get ordered out by an infant”.
Later in the day Sir Archibald found Lord Moynihan and apologised over lunch. Luckily for him Lord Moynihan remarked “You have hands like a ploughboy, my boy, but they behave like an artists’, sit down and tell me about yourself”.
It was at his point he convinced Sir Archibald that the England was the place he should be to further his career and mentioned about potential opportunities which would suit him. Sir Archibald, keen to find a new challenge decided not to substantiate the basis of this conversational offer was quick to make a decision and pack up.
Whilst many tried to dissuade him, the man who had helped him develop his surgical skills to this point knew he needed less predictable soil in order to let him grow. This surgeon Donald Balfour advanced him the money for the passage of his now family of three to England. In a letter of support he wrote “you have two faults Archie, you turn your masters into pupils far too quickly and they resent it....You also part your hair in the middle of your head and this drives your friends to distraction! No man should look the same on both sides of his face”.
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The McIndoe family arrived in Liverpool in the winter of 1931 and travelled to London to find an inhospitable destination not only in terms of the climate, but the potential work situation as well.
Struggling to make contact with Lord Moynihan Sir Archibald finally arranged a meeting at which Moynihan seemed to barely remember him and questioned why he was over here. When he pointed out it was because of a job offer Moynihan looked incredulous and stated “bless my soul, the hospital isn’t even built yet, can hardly give you a job if the place doesn’t exist can I”.
Moynihan dismissed the claims of offered work and suggested he ought to get a fellowship at the Royal College of Surgeons before anyone would take him on for surgical work. The hours after this meeting Archie wandered the streets of London surely in one of his lowest ebbs having walked away from such security to find nothing but adversity in his future and expecting a second child whilst residing in a cold and damp basement flat.
He began work on his UK Fellowship and through a letter from his mother found he had a distant cousin in London, Sir Harold Gillies who was a highly regarded plastic surgeon who had transformed the practices of surgery during the First World War.
It took about a month to secure a face to face with Sir Harold who turned out to be both a great host and sympathetic listener who made suitable introductions and secured him work at St Barts hospital whilst giving him opportunities to learn about the procedures of plastic surgery which he was so well known for undertaking.
What was to follow can only be described as a intensive and difficult period of study, work and family life, still living in the dank basement flat where Vanora would be born. But by 1932 both work and accommodation was improving.
From now until the Second World War Sir Archibald found himself assisting Sir Harold and would buy into his practice. He would find that he was a hard task master and a regular practical joker. At the start of this time Sir Archibald struggled to accomplish the maddeningly difficult task of sewing pieces of skin together and six weeks after joining Sir Harold’s practice received a letter addressed to “Mrs Archibald McIndoe” telling him that he had been recommended for a position as charlady at the Royal School of Needlework and would he come for an interview.
As time progressed his skills under Sir Harold became much greater and so did his reputation, eventually he felt that his partnership with Sir Harold was starting to prove unfavourable and managed to buy himself out ready to start his own practice and reap the rewards of his years of dedication. He aimed to put in 10 busy years of work then take a more relaxed pace and enjoy the material benefits afforded by his work.
Unfortunately the worsening political situation in Europe was to change all of these plans.
At the outbreak of WWII there were only 4 fully experienced plastic surgeons in Britain-Gillies, McIndoe, Rainsford Mowlem and T.P Kilner. At the request of the government they were divided up to head up 4 separate plastic units to treat the expected influx of injured servicemen from the different branches of the armed services. Sir Archibald moved to the recently rebuilt Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, and founded a Centre for Plastic and Jaw Surgery and dealing with RAF casualties.
As airborne warfare began to deliver its first casualties it became clear that this was the start of a stark new chapter in medical treatment. East Grinstead could expect to treat casualties at an unparalleled volume and severity of injury, the like of which they had never experienced before.
The phrase airman's burn quickly became a medical term referring to the common similarities of injuries sustained to the face and hands. These injuries were mostly caused when aircraft fuel tanks ignited and pilots were caught up in the inferno before they could parachute to safety. (Spitfires had them positioned just in front of the cockpit).
Most pilots removed their gloves and goggles during flying in order to aid control of the aircraft but unfortunately this also exposed them to even greater levels of injury.
It was also clear to Sir Archibald that current burns treatment techniques were inadequate particularly the use of Tannic Acid and Tannic Jelly which when applied shrank the tissue around a burn to reduce fluid loss. However this tightening of the tissue of hands and face caused far more problems than benefits. Sir Archibald responded to this by devising new ways to treat burns including use of saline to bathe them and forced the Ministry Of Health to ban Tannic Acid treatments. He also evolved previous plastic surgery techniques to become far more effective in restoring wounded skin and tissue.
Not only did he push technical innovation but also the ideas of rehabilitation and reintegration of burns survivors back into society. As in 1941 an unusual club was formed at the Queen Victoria Hospital. The Guinea Pig Club, whose members consisted of his recovering patients.
The club committee was carefully selected; Sir Archibald was the first president; the first secretary had severely damaged fingers encouraging a minimal of note taking; the first treasurer, whose severely damaged legs made him unlikely to “walk off” with club funds.
Most of the club would be made up of British pilots or bomber crewmen. However a number of Guinea Pigs were Canadian, Australian, New Zealanders, American and East European. "His boys” were allowed to wear their own service uniforms whilst recovering and a supply of beer was always on tap in the form of the barrel kept in the ward. The formation of the club was a key part of rehabilitation, using camaraderie and shared experiences of the men to help support each other during their lengthy and painful rehabilitation.
Initially there was resistance from the hospital welfare committee to these unusual arrangements. At one such committee meeting he 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”.
For some members of the club 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 including Bill Foxley ended up marrying nurses from the hospital as they got used to seeing past their injuries.
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 were often not kind when seeing their disfigurements. Visits up to London were often accompanied by horrified onlookers and comments about not letting them out in public.
Fortunately many people showed extraordinary kindness to the Guinea Pigs, particularly people like Neville and Elaine Blond who opened up their house for them to stay in whilst recovering and turned a blind eye (most of the time) to the racket and mischief cause by the rabble of “Pigs”.
By the end of the war their numbers totalled 649, testament to the incredible efforts of Sir Archibald. After the war many of the Guinea Pigs managed to reintegrate into society and find work though their determination and confidence which was drawn from the other members.
They continued to meet annually 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 and toasts made to “The Queen”, “Absent Friends” and “The Women” completed with a rendition of the Guinea Pig Anthem. Against the odds many have lived into old age though now the youngest is now in their mid 80s.
In 1946 Sir Archibald became a member of council for the Royal College of Surgeons and in 1947 was awarded a knighthood to honour his work during the war. Around this time he visited East Africa and began farming in the foothills of Mt Kilamanjaro. His time spent in the country led him co-found an air based medical service AMREF to treat the rural population of this area which launched in 1957.
Similarly he and his friends Neville and Elaine Blond were planning the foundations of another medical charity in the form of a new research institute at Queen Victoria Hospital to be launched in 1961. Sadly, at just 59 years old, Sir Archibald died in his sleep on 11th April 1960, one year before the opening of the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation. His ashes were buried in the Royal Air Force church of St Clement Danes.
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