Archibald McIndoe achieved international fame during the war, for his pioneering work with plastic surgery on Battle of Britain fighter pilots. The skills developed by McIndoe and his team on members of the Guinea Pig Club set standards used on burns victims throughout the rest of the war and in years after.
Archibald McIndoe was born on May 4th 1900 in Dunedin, New Zealand. He was the second of four children and his father was a printer. McIndoe was taught at Otago High School and later studied medicine at Otago University. After qualifying from university, McIndoe became a house surgeon at Waihato Hospital. From here, he was awarded a New Zealand Fellowship to study pathological anatomy in the United States. While in America, McIndoe published several papers on chronic liver disease. For this work, he received the John William White Scholarship for foreign study.
In 1930, McIndoe came to London. However he could find no work and on the suggestion of Sir Harold Gillies, McIndoe took up a job as a clinical assistant in the department of plastic surgery at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. In 1932, McIndoe passed his FRCS exams and was given a position as General Surgeon and lecturer at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases. In 1934, McIndoe obtained a Fellowship of the American College of Surgeons. McIndoe held this post until 1939 when he became a consulting surgeon. In the previous year, McIndoe had been appointed the RAF’s consultant in plastic surgery.
McIndoe started to work at the now famous Blond-McIndoe Research Centre based at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, West Sussex, at the start of the war and he himself found fame for the pioneering work he did with pilots horrifically burned in their planes during the Battle of Britain. In all the time at the hospital, McIndoe did not wear a military uniform and was never himself subject to military discipline despite working for the RAF and with RAF pilots.
Both the Hurricanes and Spitfires were powered by powerful engines that gave both planes the speed they needed during the battle. These engines were powered by aviation fuel and both planes carried considerable quantities of this highly inflammable liquid. If one of the fighters caught fire – which was a very common occurrence if hit by enemy fire – the flames spread very quickly throughout the plane, causing appalling injuries to a pilot. Those who survived such occurrences could be horrifically burned. It was the work done on these men that made McIndoe – and the burns unit – world famous. Such was the pioneering work done by McIndoe, that the pilots were nicknamed “Guinea Pigs” simply because what was being done on them was so new and no-one was over sure whether the operations would be successful. Pilots who underwent plastic surgery belonged to the Guinea Pig Club.
McIndoe dealt with deep burns. He knew that early grafts were vital if the patient was not going to suffer from loss of function as well as disfigurement. He also knew that many of his patients (or “his boys”) as McIndoe liked to call the pilots were going to spend a considerable time in hospital. Some of his “boys” had over thirty operations on them. McIndoe’s big ‘enemy’ was graft rejection by the patient. He learned by experience – both good and bad – hence his “boys” being ‘guinea pigs’. For those who worked with McIndoe, he was known either as the “The Boss” or “The Maestro”.
McIndoe also go the local community of East Grinstead involved. Because of their disfigurement and the intensity of their operations, the recovering pilots could not mix in the community. Despite the injured pilots heroism, there was a general feeling that the public would not have been able to handle their physical appearance in normal day-to-day circumstances. Two good friends of McIndoe – Neville and Elaine Blond – assisted in developing more community help and support for the pilots so that they did not feel ostracised from the very people they had been helping to protect as fighter pilots. The Blond’s persuaded some families in East Grinstead to accept into their homes as guests the recovering pilots at the hospital. Gradually more and more families agreed to help thus bringing the pilots more and more into the town’s community.
McIndoe did not just limit his work to a medical/physical level. He realised that the injured pilots needed some form of psychological rehabilitation and he did his best to facilitate this. After the war, McIndoe received many awards for his work. During the war he was awarded a CBE and he was knighted in 1947. In 1949, Sir Archibald McIndoe became a member of the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1958, he became its vice-president. McIndoe also founded BAPS (the British Association of Plastic Surgeons).
Very few people can claim to have pioneered a new medical technique but McIndoe, along with his team, can claim this honour. McIndoe died in 1960 and is buried in the RAF’s church of St Clement Danes. In March 1961, a new burns research unit was established at Queen Victoria’s Hospital and it was named the Blond-McIndoe Unit in honour of the work done by him.