In 1941 The Guinea Pig Club was formed; it was made up of members who were recovering WW2 pilots and bomber crew from the allied airforce that had been burnt and were receiving treatment from Sir Archibald McIndoe. Many of these men had fought in the Battle of Britain, including RAF Flight Lieutenant Richard Hilary, whose book The Last Enemy documented his experiences.
The club committee was carefully selected; Sir Archibald as the first president; the first secretary who 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.
The chosen name Guinea Pig reflected the pioneering nature of Sir Archibald’s work, where many procedures and treatments were completely new to plastic surgery, devised to respond to the new forms of injury that were being witnessed at the hospital.
Most of the club were British pilots or bomber crewmen who had sustained burns injuries when their planes had crashed or caught fire in the air. However a number of Guinea Pigs were Canadian, Australian, New Zealanders, American and East European.
By the end of the war their numbers totalled 649, testament to the incredible efforts of Sir Archibald.
The camaraderie and quite often the black humour was integral to the club and often needed to help the members through difficult times. Not only did they have to overcome the physical hardship but also 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 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.
Fortunately many people showed extra ordinary 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”. 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.
The Guinea Pigs have continued to meet annually since 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 and toasts made to “The Queen”, “Absent Friends” and “The Women” completed with a rendition of the Guinea Pig Anthem.
With the youngest now being over 80 their number declines but surviving members still meet for a summer outing and Christmas Dinner.
Read the incredible story of Guinea Pig and past Blond McIndoe Trustee Bill Foxley.
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