The Guinea Pig Club- A piece of surgical history for Remembrance Day

A few weeks ago, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (@RACSurgeons), who I follow on Twitter, tweeted a link about ” A fascinating story of pioneering plastic surgery in WW2″ with a link to a BBC news story about the 75th anniversary of the Guinea Pig Club.  Given that Remembrance day approaches and as a tribute, I thought I would share our family’s connection to the Guinea Pig Club as my life for the last 14 years would have looked very different had the club not existed.

John Roberson was an Australian who signed up to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) during WW2.  He was trained to work in Lancaster bombers, huge planes that flew bombing raids over Europe.  During a training run, his plane went down.  He suffered significant burns to his hands and face while pulling other men out of the wreckage.  Burns were a not uncommon injury to airmen, and a special clinic headed by Dr. Archibald McIndoe,  a surgeon from New Zealand, had been established in East Grinstead, a small village in England.  649 airmen, mostly British, but also from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, were treated there by Dr. McIndoe and his team. McIndoe was a plastic surgeon with new and radical ideas about the surgical treatment of burns. Plastic surgery, and the surgical treatment of burns, was in its infancy then.  The Guinea Pig Club came out of a drinking club, formed by these burned airmen in East Grinstead, knowing they were having new pioneering treatments tried on them, but accepting of it anyway, partly because they had no choice.

Dr. McIndoe knew these young men needed to have their psyches treated in addition to their burns (and some of them had horrific injuries).  He recruited young women to help out at the hospital, either as nurses or in other jobs. Dozens of marriages came about from these relationships, although nobody kept tract of the exact number.  One of the marriages involved John Roberson, who met his English wife Kay, a hairdresser recruited from London, while a patient at East Grinstead.  They would later marry, have two daughters (one of them my mother in law) while living in England, and another son after moving back to Australia.  John would head back to Australia after the war alone and Kay joined him later, sailing out on a navy ship in not too comfortable conditions. From her description, I think it was a little like the book Ship of Brides in reverse, but with an 18 and 6 month old to care for by herself on a ship not meant for children.  `We all helped each other` she said of the other women travelling with her. John would have his scars for the rest of his life, with very limited use of his hands.  He could still grip a golf club, and would teach my husband (his grandchild) to golf at a young age.  He passed away many years before I met my husband, but I still get the golf lessons passed on through him.   He talked about the war rarely, as the airmen were all  instructed when they were discharged. There would be many annual meetings of the Australian branch of Guinea Pig Club after the war which John would attend.  Only 18 of the original members are surviving, most now well into their 90s, and sadly the meetings in Australia were cancelled long ago for lack of membership.

When I met my husbands family for the first time, and they knew I was a surgeon, and the stories about East Grinsted, Dr. McIndoe, and John and Kay`s meeting were some of the first ones I heard about.  Unfortunately I had never heard of Dr. McIndoe but I was soon educated in detail. I remarked to Kay about the bomb damage I had seen still on the bridges and sidewalks around London, I was living in England at the time.  She talked about living in London during the Blitz, the horrible noise the bombs would make when being dropped, and how she was recruited to East Grinstead. She spoke fondly of Dr. McIndoe, who was almost a godlike figure among the staff and patients there.  A statue of Dr. McIndoe has now been dedicated in the village as a reminder of what happened there.

For those who would like a look at a Lancaster bomber, there is a (sometimes) working model kept at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, in Mount Hope, just outside of Hamilton.  I took the kids to see it a couple of years ago, explaining the connection to them and marvelling at the size of it.  We tend to talk about their great grandfather more around Remembrance Day though, although as we go through the generations I worry the significance will wane.

And so as another Remembrance Day approaches, I can only wonder what if?  What if John and Kay had never met?  Simon (my husband) would not exist, nor would our 3 children. Sometimes the horrors of war yield a tiny sliver of a silver lining. The Guinea Pig Club now has its own Twitter account (@GuineaPigClub_) and on the feed there is lots of interesting old photos and tributes.  Social media keeping the memories alive- amazing.  A book of gratitude to the Guinea Pig Club has been set up online and I have sent my wishes in.  You can too- https://www.rafbf.org/book-gratitude.

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