The Guinea Pig Club

The Guinea Pig Club was formed of patients of Archibald McIndoe at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, Sussex who underwent reconstructive plastic surgery during the World War II generally after receiving burn injuries in aircraft.

Initially the club was a drinking club whose aim was to help rehabilitate its members during their long reconstructive treatments. It was formed in June 1941 with 39 patients. Its 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 ten surgical procedures. By the end of the war the club had 649 members.

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 Polish. During the Battle of Britain, most of the patients were fighter pilots but by end of the war, a total of around 80% of the members of the club 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. The plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe worked at the Queen Victoria Hospital burns unit in East Grinstead. McIndoe improved, developed and invented many techniques for treating, reconstructing and rehabilitating burn casualties.

The treatment of burns by surgery was in its infancy. Before that time, many severely burned casualties would not have survived. The term "Guinea Pig" indicates the experimental nature of the reconstructive work carried out on the club's members and the new equipment designed specifically to treat these injuries.

McIndoe had to deal with very severe injuries. One man, Air Gunner Les Wilkins, lost his face and hands and McIndoe had to recreate his fingers by making incisions between his knuckles. Many burns required several surgical operations that took years to accomplish.

Also in the early days of plastic surgery for burns, there was little emphasis on reintegration of patients back into normal life after treatment. The Guinea Pig Club was the result of McIndoe's efforts to make life in the hospital easy for his patients and to begin to rebuild them psychologically in preparation for life outside the hospital. He expected many to stay in the hospital for several years and undergo many reconstructive operations, so he set out to make their stay in hospital relaxed and socially productive.

Unlike many military hospitals at the time or since, patients were encouraged to lead as normal a life as possible. They could wear their usual clothes or service uniforms instead of "convalescent blues" and were able to leave the hospital at will. There were even barrels of beer in wards to encourage an informal and happy atmosphere. McIndoe also convinced some of the local families in East Grinstead to accept his patients as guests and other residents to treat them as normally as possible. East Grinstead became "the town that did not stare".

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 lent some of his patients money for their subsequent entry to the civilian life.

The club regularly meets sixty years later and still offers help to burns patients. Annual meetings at East Grinstead attract visitors from all over the world. By 2003, there were around two hundred survivors. One of the local pubs has also adopted the name The Guinea Pig. Sixteen members of the club have also written books about their experiences, some of them during the war. The president of the club is Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

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In May 2011 there were only 73 surviving members worldwide, only 39 of these now live in the U.K.