The “Guinea Pig Club” – Pioneering Plastic Surgery For WW2 Airmen

What does most of the world understand by the word guinea pig?  Well, to most of us, it is a small rodent, beloved by many young children but to a number of WWII RAF airmen it has an entirely different connotation.  To them it means membership of a highly exclusive club that was, recently, remembered by the Duke of Edinburgh by unveiling a memorial dedicated to the members.

The club was started around 1941 when RAF airmen who had been badly injured during operational duties were selected for, at that time, revolutionary plastic surgery by Dr. Archibald McIndoe.  In the early 1940s reconstructive plastic surgery was in its infancy, and Dr. McIndoe was a pioneer in the field.

Des O’Connell, aged 96, the oldest surviving member of the club, explained that the name ‘The Guinea Pig Club’ came from the fact that before the war medical experiments were done on guinea pigs. When Dr. McIndoe visited the wards looking for candidates for his surgery, officers often told him that they had a ‘guinea pig for him’, so this is how the name of the club was coined. Initially, it was a social club for wounded crew members who enjoyed a drink together during their recovery but by the end of the war, with 649 members, it was so much more than a social club.

Now there are only 17 members of the club still alive in the UK, but they are still firm friends today as they were 76 years ago. “It gave me many things, a standard of friendship, confidants. We really opened up our hearts to each other. There aren’t many of us left now, and you do miss the fact they are not there,” said Des during an interview with The Mirror.

The entry conditions to this exclusive club were so horrendous that no-one voluntarily joined.  Des O’Connell, an observer, attached to 502 Squadron Coast­­al Command, was on a mission to sink the German battleship the Bismark in 1941 when the Whitney bomber that he was in, crashed into a hill at Limavady, Nor­­th­­ern Ireland.  The bomber was outbound, fully laden with fuel and explosives when it crashed and Des, who was 21 at the time, was severely burned when the plane crashed, and he was forced to crawl through the wreckage to get out.  Fuel dripped onto his clothes and hands and when he finally exited, he thought that his burned gloves were hanging off his hands, but it was not his gloves it was his skin.   His body and feet had been protected by his leather jacket and boots, but the rest of his body was badly burned.

His injuries were so bad that his squadron leader doubted that he would survive, but his mother insisted that her son would pull through.  He was transferred to the RAF Hospital at Halton, in Buckinghamshire, where Des was one of eight patients selected by Dr. McIndoe to be transferred to the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex.

Des recalls the 35 skin grafts done in the thirty months that he spent in the Queen Victoria Hospital, “He did virtually every operation, on my eyelids, hands, buttocks. You certainly didn’t feel like you were being experimented on.  McIndoe was very matter-of-fact, and you always felt whatever he said was right.”

Another member of the club, Alan Morgan (93), was injured during a mission with the 49 Squadron to Stuttgart.  The year was 1944, and it was his 21st birthday when flak caused the main door of the Lancaster bomber that he was flying in, to open. The air tank of the man sent to close the door failed, so flight engineer Alan took his gloves off to pick him up and to close the door.  Unfortunately, he passed out, and his fingers stuck to the frozen fuselage causing frostbite to his fingers.  The only option was to amputate eight of his fingers, but Dr. McIndoe managed to create stumps to give him some movement, and he saved the rest of his hands.

Again, the humor came to the rescue, “They christened me ‘Fingers’ Morgan because I had none. There was another guy who lost all of his toes, a Czech, so I said to him, “I’ll play the piano, and you do the tap dancing.”

Dr. McIndoe had noticed that men who had been injured over the sea, tended to heal faster and better after their wounds were exposed to sea water, so he incorporated a hated regime of saline baths for all his patients.  The pedicle graft was refined under the skilled hands of Dr. McIndoe and resulted in Guinea Pigs getting new noses.

Dr. McIndoe did not only show concern for the physical recovery of his patients but realized that the psychological impact of their injuries would do as much damage if not treated correctly.  The disfigurement of his patients due to their burns, was very difficult for many of the young men to handle but Dr. McIndoe went to the surrounding community and asked them to please not stare at these disfigured men.  The community of East Grinstead supported the doctor, and his patients would walk around without feeling embarrassed by their injuries, Mirror reported.

Dr. Archibald McIndoe died in 1960, and at that time Prince Philip became the president of the club.  He unveiled a memorial stone located in the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire, on the 2nd November.  It has Sir Archibald’s face on one side and on the other is the inscription, “Out of the flames came inspiration.”

Dr. Sandy Saunders, who raised funds for the building of the memorial, spoke at the unveiling, “A debt of honor is owed to the excellence of surgical expertise which restored my body to health and cheerful spirit of valiant men who taught me to endure my treatment.”

An on-line book of gratitude has been created here, by the RAF Benevolent Fund, where you can leave a message to these brave veterans.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE