The Guinea Pig Club
The Guinea Pig Club
A remarkable story of 'strength through adversity. During the second world war, a group of young airmen, all with terrible injuries, formed an exclusive club. They were all in the care of pioneering plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe at the Queen Victoria Hospital Burns Unit, whose techniques shaped modern reconstructive surgery. The club remained active after the end of the war, and its annual reunion meetings continued until 2007.
The club was formed on McIndoe’s initiative in June 1941 with 39 patients, primarily as a drinking club. The members were aircrew patients in the hospital and the surgeons and anaesthetists who treated them. Aircrew members had to be serving airmen who had gone through at least two surgical procedures. By the end of the war the club had 649 members.
The name “Guinea Pig” – the rodent species commonly used as a laboratory test subject – was chosen to reflect the experimental nature of the techniques and equipment used for reconstructive work carried out at East Grinstead. The treatment of burns by surgery was in its infancy, and many casualties were suffering from injuries which, only a few years earlier, would have led to certain death. The original members were Royal Air Force (RAF) aircrew who had severe burns, generally to the face or hands. Most were British but other significant minorities included Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and by the end of the war Americans, French, Russians, Czechs and Poles. During the Battle of Britain, most of the patients were fighter pilots, but by the end of the war around 80% of the members were from bomber crews of RAF Bomber Command.
Over a Sunday afternoon glass of sherry on 20th July 1941 a group of airmen, all recovering from surgery, suggested they should form a drinking club. Membership would be open to:
- The Guinea Pigs – any member of Allied Aircrew who had undergone at least two operations at the Queen Victoria hospital for burns or other crash injuries.
- The Scientists – doctors, surgeons and members of medical staff.
- The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Guinea Pigs – friends and benefactors who made the life of a Guinea Pig a happy one.
All members were to pay an annual subscription of 2/6d. Women were not able to be members but could come to some special ‘ladies’ evenings.
The club was originally intended to disband at the end of the war but has gone from strength to strength celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2016.
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