World War II was the deadliest military conflict in human history, with 70 to 85 million dead. The soldiers were very well acquainted with the sight of mangled bodies and badly disfigured soldiers who were lucky enough to survive whatever horrible experience they had been through. In the United States Armed Forces, for instance, a total of 671,846 were wounded throughout the war. That was why the Guinea Pig Club was formed in July 1941, with the goal of supporting those injured during the war through reconstructive surgeries.
The Guinea Pig Club was formed in July 1941 to support aircrew undergoing reconstructive plastic surgery after receiving burn injuries in the Second World War.
Pioneer in the Field
Before we talk about the Club, let’s get to know first the brilliant plastic surgeon who primarily worked with the members: Sir Archibald Hector McIndoe.
When World War II broke out, Dr. McIndoe was one of the surgeons working with the Royal Air Force. He was assigned to the recently rebuilt Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex. There, he founded a Center for Plastic and Jaw Surgery and treated soldiers who fell victim to very deep burns and serious facial disfigurement. Not only did he improve the existing techniques for treating those with badly burned faces and hands, but he also acknowledged the importance of rehabilitating these patients and helping them reintegrate into normal life. One of which was eliminating the Hospital Blue convalescent uniforms that basically screamed, “Look at me, I am injured.” Instead, he made them wear their service uniform.
Dr. McIndoe even went the extra mile and reached out to the locals and asked them to support the patients by inviting them to their homes. He also never called his patients “his patients” but instead referred to him as “his boys,” while his staff called him “the Boss.”
He also observed that the wounds of those injured over the sea healed faster and better, realizing that the seawater helped their wounds. As a result, he incorporated the much-dreaded saline bath for all his boys. He also refined the pedicle graft that enabled them to get new noses.
The Guinea Pig Club
Being a guinea pig meant becoming an experimental person for procedures or tests that had not been done before, and that was where the name of the club exactly came from. When Dr. McIndoe visited the wards to look for candidates for his surgery, the officers usually volunteered some victims and said they had a “guinea pig for him.”
The Guinea Pig Club started in July 1941. It aimed to support pilots undergoing plastic surgery to reconstruct their faces after burn injuries that they obtained while in service. At least, that was how it started. According to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund‘s website,
What began with 39 patients grew to 649 by the end of the war and included Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders as well as Americans, French, and Czechs and Poles.
A Story of Salvation
One of the members of the club was Alan Morgan. It was his 21st birthday, the year 1944, when flak caused the main door of the Lancaster bomber that he was flying in to fly open. Someone was sent to close the door, but his air tank failed, so Alan, being the flight engineer, took off his gloves to pick up the guy and close the door. He, unfortunately, passed out, too, and his fingers got stuck to the frozen fuselage. As a result, his fingers were frostbitten, and when he was brought to the hospital, the doctors didn’t have an option but to amputate eight of his fingers. Dr. McIndoe was able to create stumps on his amputated fingers to give him a bit of movement, all the while saving the other fingers. Expectedly for the humor culture of the military, he earned the moniker “Fingers Morgan.”
The legacy of Dr. McIndoe is carried forward by the Blond McIndoe Foundation, which “was founded in 1961 by close friends and family of the world-renowned surgical pioneer Sir Archibald McIndoe.” They aimed to research the science of healing, specifically on burns and wounds healing.
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