Sir Archibald McIndoe, a pioneering plastic surgeon who treated desperately disfigured servicemen during the Second World War, died on April 11 1960, aged just 59. On June 9 this year … his achievements will be set forever in stone and bronze, when a monument to him is unveiled by the Princess Royal in East Grinstead, home to the hospital where he worked. And by an extraordinary twist of fate, the story behind the statue is every bit as remarkable as the courage and commitment he and his patients displayed 70 years ago.
Most of those patients were airmen, caught in the inferno of a crashed bomber, or trapped in the cockpits of their Spitfires and Hurricanes as bullet-riddled fuel tanks erupted in flames around them. Such were McIndoe’s efforts on their behalf that his premature death was, even 15 years after the war ended, still the stuff of front pages. As the Evening News recounted in the headline of its tribute, “He Gave New Faces To Battle of Britain Fliers”.
But he did more than that. According to Jack Perry, one of McIndoe’s last surviving patients, who suffered 80 per cent burns in 1944 when his Halifax bomber caught fire just after take off, McIndoe gave those for whom he cared a new sense of purpose in life, a new reason to live.
“I owe him 100 per cent,” said Mr Perry. “He was just an absolutely wonderful man. He put you at your ease immediately. He said: ‘You’re going to be OK. We’re going to fix you up’.”
In the end McIndoe and his team in West Sussex “fixed up” 649 servicemen – men who underwent such innovative treatment that they rakishly dubbed themselves The Guinea Pig Club.
Their disfigurement meant the possibility of being shunned by sweethearts and friends, their lives blighted. So McIndoe not only treated them, he also stood up for them. “He had enormous battles with the authorities,” says Montfort Bebb, now 86. “He said, ‘You treat my boys properly.’ He even had a keg of beer for them in the ward. He had to give them the odd dressing-down, they were young men – they did misbehave – but they loved him.”
There’s more at the link.
Here’s a brief video documentary about Sir Archibald and his patients.
I knew a member of the Guinea Pig Club in South Africa. He was pretty badly disfigured despite all the surgery Sir Archibald and his team had performed, but assured me he was still very grateful for their efforts, “because until they worked their miracles I didn’t have a face at all”.
I’m glad to see such an honorable and selfless man of medicine being given the respect that is his due. The surgical procedures he pioneered are still in use today.