Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Reconstruction of Warriors: Archibald McIndoe, The Royal Air Force and the Guinea Pig Club - Dr E.W.Mayhew

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in Airforce magazine. Therefore, the material is proprietary to the Air Force Association of Canada and is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the association. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor Airforce magazine ( ). I support the Air Force Association’s important mission to inform new generations of Canadians about the value and importance of their country’s air force. A link to the AirForce Magazine website is:

Title: The Reconstruction of Warriors: Archibald McIndoe, The Royal Air Force and the Guinea Pig Club
Author: E.R. Mayhew
ISBN: 9781848325845
Pages: 239
Illustrations: 37 B/W
Publisher: Pen and Sword Publishing 2010

​This book speaks to two of the most diametrically opposed yet mutually supportive aspects of war: the ability to inflict horrific injury and the ability to heal. Mayhew has examined a secondary effect of warfare that had benefits far beyond the battlefield, that being the advances in the overall treatment of burns. Archibald McIndoe, a plastic surgeon assigned to the RAF in early 1939, and his staff, achieved almost legendary status amongst burned aircrew (the so called Guinea Pig club) for his successes. Through his force of personality he not only created a center of excellence for burn reconstruction but expanded his original mandate to meet the unanticipated flood of burn victims resulting from World War 2 aerial combat.

​During the interwar years there was very little need for burn reconstruction as the vast majority of patients died. Therefore, McInhoe had to develop his methodology from essentially ground zero. Based on his observations and a remarkable insight into the human condition, he initiated reforms ranging from patient care, ward placement and bed construction to post care engagement with the community. Mayhew’s narrative traces these innovations in such a way that the reader is able to both follow the changes and understand the reasoning behind the actions.

There is a distinct Canadian aspect to the story as Mayhew discusses the RCAF wing of McIndoe's hospital. Given the fact that the RCAF constituted the second largest group after the RAF, it was decided by the Canadian Government to fund a hospital to augment the RAF burn unit. The staff and organization were trained and outfitted in a manner identical to the RAF parent unit; of note was the fact that surgical and ward teams were made up exclusively of Canadian staff to a level of professionalism equal to that of McIndoe's. Such was its success and seamless integration within the RAF unit, that the head Canadian plastic surgeon, Group Captain Tilley, was appointed acting head of the entire organization when McIndoe went on convalescence leave in 1943.

Mayhew also expounds upon the unique dual approach that McIndoe initiated with the care and recovery of his patients; he recognized very early on the importance of reintegration and acceptance of his burn patients back into the society at large. To that end, he proactively engaged with the local town of East Grinstead as a means of his patients and civilians overcoming their fear of the unknown and each other. His holistic approach was very original and a smashing success. Such was its acceptance that the template was extended beyond England to Canada and its RCAF Guinea Pig Club members. McIndoe tirelessly engaged with Government at all levels, military staff and the medical community, knocking down preconceived notions of patient care and reintegration with great success. His actions went far beyond his primary role as a surgeon and set the standard for the modern health care provider.

McIndoe’s success was also a result of having likeminded individuals engaging in concert with him. The RAF, in a manner completely unique from the Army or RN, took and maintained complete responsibility for the burned crewmen. Thus they did not become wards of the Government but were maintained as part of the RAF family. The RAF leadership agreed with and completely supported the program recommendations of McIndoe. The influence and role of the Guinea Pigs carried on well past the Second World War and continues to this day. Those that benefited from it passed on their support to victims of the Falkland’s war and the Iraq conflicts.

Mayhew includes in her narrative an in depth bibliography and a reading/video list of timely and pertinent information on the success of the Guinea Pigs and their continued activities. Her writing style is very engaging and lucid. This book sheds light on an aspect of the war that populations don’t like to think about or be exposed to. Modern day techniques of treatment may be traced directly to the success and ground-breaking efforts of the original Guinea Pig Club and its members. Additionally, misrepresentations of the Guinea Pig membership are also rectified (such as the Club being made up almost exclusively of fighter pilots, as 80% of the patients were from bomber command).
Mayhew is to be complimented on an outstanding addition to expanding our knowledge of an area rarely discussed by historians. Her book should be mandatory reading for all defence members (both civilian and military) and on everyone’s history shelf. This book is most highly recommended.

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