East Grinstead 'guinea pigs' celebrate 70th anniversary

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Aircrew with pedicles on their faces
Image caption,
"The Guinea Pig Club", as the men affectionately named it, was only intended to last until the end of the war

It became known as the town that did not stare.

When hundreds of severely-burned aircrew were treated at the hospital in East Grinstead, West Sussex, residents welcomed them into their homes.

It was the idea of pioneering surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe who felt the disfigured men's mental health was as important as their physical health.

He also encouraged the formation of a drinking club, which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary.

"The Guinea Pig Club", as the men affectionately named it because of the experimental surgery they underwent, was created in 1941 and was only intended to last until the end of the war.

Image caption,
Sir Archibald McIndoe (white coat and glasses) encouraged socialising

But the club, which was used as a support mechanism for the men, continues with 39 British members of its original 649 still alive.

Sir Archibald is credited with pioneering modern plastic surgery during the war at the Queen Victoria Hospital, in East Grinstead.

According to the Guinea Pig Club's honorary secretary, Bob Marchant, who worked with the surgeon in the 1950s, it was his focus on young men's future lives, which paid dividends.

"He not only treated them for burns, but also psychologically by getting them back into the community," he said.

"There were a lot of wealthy people around here and McIndoe went out and asked them to invite the airmen into their homes. He also did the same in the pubs.

"Eventually East Grinstead became known as the town that didn't stare."

'Couldn't stomach'

Sadly for some of the airmen their injuries proved too severe for existing relationships to continue.

"Some of the wives left the men because they couldn't stomach the disfigurement," said Mr Marchant.

"But some of the men married the nurses from the hospital as they got used to seeing past the injuries."

During WWII, Sir Archibald invented various surgical techniques and improved others.

He noticed that the burns of airmen who crashed into sea healed quicker than the those who crashed on land, and he ordered the men to take saline baths.

He also improved the technique of using pedicles to rebuild facial features which had been burned off.

This involved using a tube of skin from the patient's body and attaching it to their face for a month to encourage blood flow between the two.

It was later detached from the body and moulded into facial features.

Mr Marchant said: "I met Sir Archibald when he was at the top of his career - a very impressive and powerful man.

"He was also a very good surgeon, but didn't suffer fools gladly."

Image caption,
Bob Marchant worked as the chief theatre technician in the Queen Victoria Hospital

This attitude rubbed off on to his "guinea pigs" and he was made the club's president until he died in 1960.

"Sir Archibald allowed alcohol within the wards and pinups on the walls because he remembered these were just young men who needed cheering up," said Mr Marchant.

"The guinea pigs have kept close, but if one of them says they've got a bad leg or arm, the others tell him to be quiet because they suffered far more years ago.

"There's no sympathy and they do have a very black sense of humour."

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