Duke of Edinburgh unveils memorial to The Guinea Pigs

Wednesday 2nd November 2016

Duke of Edinburgh unveils memorial to The Guinea Pigs

The Duke of Edinburgh has unveiled a memorial to veterans who underwent pioneering surgery at Queen Victoria Hospital after suffering disfiguring injuries in World War Two. Prince Philip unveiled the tablet at the National Memorial Arboretum.

At the outbreak of WWII there were only 4 fully experienced plastic surgeons in Britain. At the request of the government they were divided up to head up four separate units to treat the expected influx of injured servicemen from the different branches of the armed services. Sir Archibald McIndoe 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. 

It was also clear to Sir Archibald that current burns treatment techniques were inadequate  and he devised new ways to treat burns including use of saline to bathe patients and he 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.

In 1941 an unusual club was formed at the Queen Victoria Hospital. The Guinea Pig Club was named for the experimental treatment of its members, McIndoe’s recovering patients. The club committee was carefully selected; the first secretary had severely damaged fingers encouraging minimal 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.

By the end of the war the Guinea Pigs 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.

Mr Baljit Dheansa, consultant plastic surgeon at Queen Victoria Hospital, said: “Some of the approaches we still take in surgery hark back to what McIndoe did for his Guinea Pigs, and McIndoe realised that providing that psychological support helped their healing just as much as the skin grafts. The Guinea Pigs are still an inspiration for our work at the hospital and we are proud to pay tribute to them today.”