The Guinea Pig Club  Memorial

The Guinea Pig Club Memorial

A social club and mutual support network for British and allied aircrew injured during World War II.
In Loving Memory Of The Guinea Pig Club Memorial

About the Guinea Pig Club

The Guinea Pig Club, established in 1941, was a social club and mutual support network for British and allied aircrew injured during World War II. Its membership was made up of patients of Archibald McIndoe at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, Sussex, who had undergone experimental reconstructive plastic surgery, generally after receiving burns injuries in aircraft. The members were aircrew patients in the hospital and the surgeons and anaesthetists who treated them. By the end of the war the club had 649 members. The club remained active after the end of the war, and its annual reunion meetings continued until 2007.

Graeme Mitcheson finds the Cumbrian slate for the project

About the memorial

The memorial is located at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. It is carved from green Cumbrian slate and is over 2m tall. The design features a crashed Hurricane at the bottom of the memorial with its vapour trail weaving down from the top. The text is carved into the smooth panel, which is in the shape of a Spitfire wing. The logo of the Guinea Pig Club is also carved at the top of the memorial. On the left hand side of the design, the meandering vapour trail of the falling Hurricane outlines the strong facial profile of the pioneering plastic surgeon, Sir Archibald McIndoe. Reading down the right, an inscription provided by Guinea Pig Dr. Sandy Saunders – “Out of the flames came inspiration”.

The memorial reflects the violent and dramatic nature of how many of the injuries were obtained and incorporates the flames that were the cause of the injuries and the reason that the Guinea Pig Club exists. It is the 649 members of the Club that are the main focus of the Memorial but the subtle inclusion of the profile of Sir Archibald McIndoe remembers the magnificent work that he carried out.

The memorial was designed and created by artist Graeme Mitcheson who worked with Dr Sandy Saunders to finalise the detail for the work. Graeme has many large scale sculptures sited all over the UK and also created the glass Naval Service Memorial and the Bevin Boys Memorial, also at the National Memorial Arboretum.

Key facts about the Guinea Pig Club

  • The Guinea Pig Club was founded on 20 July 1941
  • Founder members were badly injured and burned Allied Servicemen, who were being treated at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead by the pioneering plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe and his team
  • At the end of WWII there were 649 Guinea Pigs, now there are only 17 surviving members in the UK and possibly 22 worldwide
  • McIndoe wanted to heal his patients on the outside so that they looked as normal as possible, but also psychologically
  • The Club has been an important part of the lives of all the Guinea Pigs and has acted as a support group, which has helped them in many ways
  • McIndoe was the Club’s President until his death in 1960 and since then HRH The Duke of Edinburgh KG KT has been President

During the service, Dr. Sandy Saunders gave the following speech:

Your Royal Highness,

On behalf of the Guinea Pigs may I welcome you to the National Memorial Arboretum.

Sir, you have honoured us by your Presidency of the Club since McIndoe’s untimely death in 1960, and you honour us further with your presence today to unveil a commemorative tribute to the Club.

I commissioned this as a debt of honour that I owed to the excellence of the surgical expertise, which restored my body to health, and to the cheerful support of many valiant men, who taught me how to endure my treatment.

I hope it will be an indication to future generations that a band of seriously injured men were able to establish a sophisticated rehabilitation system, which sustained their well-being throughout their lives.

The Club could not have developed as it did without help from generous patrons and the goodwill of many citizens of East Grinstead. I also pay tribute to Honorary Guinea Pig, plastic surgeon, Mr Tom Cochrane, who has supported the Guinea Pigs in many ways, giving his time selflessly towards advice on medical, social and pension problems for over 50 years. I am also indebted to the many generous donors who have supported my appeal for funding and who have made my vision become a reality.

Sir, may I call upon you to unveil this stone after which the Chaplain-in-Chief to the RAF will dedicate it.

A short history of the Guinea Pig Club

Plans are made

In 1936, the Government decided that Hitler’s insatiable appetite for expansion of the Fatherland would not be satisfied with the territory he had already taken and that war was inevitable. The lessons learnt during the Spanish Civil War, when Hitler and Mussolini assisted General Franco with their air forces, slaughtered hundreds of civilians and won the war for Franco, was proof that the next war would be mainly aerial and as a result our casualties in the air would produce many airmen in need of treatment for burns. And so the Emergency Medical Service was set-up with hospitals out side of London selected to deal with this anticipated problem. One of them was The Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital (as it was then known) and a Mr A. Mclndoe (later to become Sir Archibald Mclndoe) was appointed to take charge. He arrived on 4th September 1939 and together with a first- class team of medical people formed the Burns Centre.

Some of the Guinea Pigs photographed with plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe

An Idea is born 

In 1940, when the Battle of Britain began, Hurricane and Spitfire pilots, together with other aircrew, suffering from burns were taken to what was to become the world famous hospital in East Grinstead. On 20th July 1941, some of these airmen were passing their time chatting in a newly erected hut at the hospital when one of them suggested forming a Club. Someone claimed The Guinea Pig Club would be appropriate, after all, Guinea Pig animals were mainly used for medical experimentation and so were the burned airmen, as burns treatment and plastic surgery was then in its infancy.

The Guinea Pigs recover at the Queen Victoria Hospital

The Guinea Pig Club

The Club was duly formed with a committee and Mr Mclndoe as its President. The Secretary was a pilot with badly burned fingers, which meant he was excused from writing many letters and the Treasurer was a member whose legs were burned, this ensured he could not abscond with the funds. There were three types of members: The Guinea Pigs, who qualified by being WW2 aircrew members of Allied Air Forces and had received at least two operations at the hospital (for burns or other crash injuries), scientists, doctors and surgeons were honorary members and the third were the Club’s benefactors, who were to be known as ‘Friends of the Guinea Pig Club’. Initially, the Club was really intended to be a drinking club, which would disband after the war, but 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 primarily to burned and other bomber crews. In time these patients represented 80% of the total. At the end of World War II, there were 649 Guinea Pigs, and mainly 62% were British, 20% Canadians, 6% Australians, 6% New Zealanders and 6% from many other countries, including those who escaped the German invasion. But now, late 2016, 22 remain world-wide, including 17 in the UK.

The Guinea Pig Anthem

Sung to ‘The Church’s One Foundation’

We are Mclndoe’s army,
We are his Guinea Pigs with dermatomes and pedicles, Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs. And when we get our discharge Well 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 ready 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 Mclndoe’s army.

(As first verse)

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