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The Guinea Pig Club

In 1936, the Government decided that war was inevitable. The lessons learnt during the Spanish Civil War was proof that that the next war would be mainly aerial. As a result, the casualties in the air would produce many airmen in need of treatment for burns.

Therefore the Emergency Medical Service was set up with hospitals out of London selected to deal with this anticipated problem.

Guinea Pig Club

One of them was the Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital (as it was then known) and a Mr. A. McIndoe (later to become Sir Archibald McIndoe) was appointed to take charge. He arrived on the 4th of September 1939 and was the driving force towards the creation of the Burns Centre.
 

A list of some of the books which have been written with reference to the Guinea Pig Club and Sir Archibald McIndoe.

Faces from the fire, L Mosley Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1962

McIndoe Plastic Surgeon, H McLeave Frederick Muller Ltd, 1961

The Last Enemy, Richard Hillary MacMillan & Co Ltd, 1942

I had a row with a German, RAF Casualty MacMillan & Co Ltd, 1941

The Guinea Pig Club, Edward Bishop MacMillan & Co Ltd, 1963

One of our pilots is safe, William Simpson Hamish Hamilton, 1942

The way to recovery, William Simpson Hamish Hamilton, 1944

I burned my fingers, William Simpson Putnam Books, 1955

Tale of a Guinea Pig, Geoffrey Page Pelham Books Ltd, 1981 + Corgi Books, 1983

Best Foot Forward, Colin Hodgkinson Corgi Books, 1978 + Odhams 1957

McIndoe's Army, Peter Williams + Ted Harrison Pelham Books Ltd, 1979

Sir Archibald McIndoe leads the singing

The Guinea Pig Anthem

We are McIndoe’s army,
We are his Guinea Pigs.
With dermatomes and pedicles,
Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs.
And when we get our discharge
We’ll shout with all our might:
“Per ardua ad astra”
We’d rather drink than fight

John Hunter runs the gas works,
Ross Tilley wields the knife.
And if they are not careful
They’ll have your flaming life.
So, Guinea Pigs, stand steady
For all your surgeon’s calls:
And if their hands aren’t steady
They’ll whip off both your ears

We’ve had some mad Australians,
Some French, some Czechs, some Poles. We’ve even had some Yankees,
God bless their precious souls.
While as for the Canadians -
Ah! That’s a different thing.
They couldn’t stand our accent
And built a separate Wing

We are McIndoe’s army,
(As first verse)

   

In 1940, when The Battle of Britain began, Hurricane and Spitfire pilots, suffering from burns were taken to what was to become the world famous hospital in East Grinstead. On the 20th of July 1941, some of these airmen were passing their time chatting in a newly erected hut at the hospital. One of them suggested forming a Club. Someone suggested the name “Guinea Pig Club”. Burns and reconstructive surgery was in its infancy. It was recognised by the burned airmen that much of the surgery was experimental.

The Club was duly formed with a committee and Mr. McIndoe as its President. The Secretary was a pilot with badly burned fingers, which meant he was excused from writing many letters. The Treasurer was a member whose legs were burned, this ensured he could not abscond with the funds! There were three types of members. Guinea Pigs, who qualified by being a member of an aircrew and had received at least one operation at the hospital. Scientists, Doctors and Surgeons were honorary members The Club’s benefactors were to be known as Friends of the Guinea Pig Club. The Club was really intended to be a drinking club, which would disband after the war. Instead, it grew in strength and through the generosity of many people became financially sound.

Later, as the bombing programme intensified against the industrial heart of Germany, so the emphasis switched from burned fighter pilots to burned bomber crews. In time, these patients represented 80% of the total. There were 649 Guinea Pigs at the end of the war. The majority were British (65-70%). Other nationalities included, Canadian (27%), Australian (8%), New Zealander (8%). The camaraderie and spirit within The Queen Victoria Hospital are reflected by the “Guinea Pig Anthem".

 

After the war, communications have been maintained by the publication of a twice yearly magazine that is distributed throughout the world. Members meet for a weekend reunion every year in East Grinstead and on other occasions. Its aim now, 55 years after the club was formed, is to ensure that Guinea Pigs in financial difficulties are assisted. If medical advice is needed, the advice of the Department of Plastic Surgery is sought. The first President, Sir Archibald McIndoe died in 1960. From that time H.R.H. The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh has been the President. From that original total number of 649, only 210 remain.

The Club has much to offer, having experienced disfigurement and functional loss, particularly due to restricted use of fingers. Members are always willing to assist new burns patients, showing them that through adversity a full life can be lived.

 
The Guinea Pig Club Registered under the War Charities Act 1940 Registered Charity 227313