Faces from the Fire: the biography of Sir Archibald McIndoe, 1962 (Lib 18911)


Chosen by the Guinea Pig Club (text by Sam Gallop, Chair of the Guinea Pig Club)

The Archive of the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, which includes the patient case files and research records of Sir Archibald McIndoe and his teams, is of national and international importance. During the Second World War this hospital was the centre for the treatment of the Allied Air Crews, who with good humour described themselves as the medical Guinea Pig Club.

Sir Archibald McIndoe and members of the Guinea Pig Club, Christmas 1948 (Acc. 14373)

Having experienced various military rehabilitation regimes I recall that the regime of Sir Archibald McIndoe and his skilled and caring colleagues was unique in combining the highest quality medical skills with making you feel that you were a special individual who could despite your disabilities go out and re-conquer your brave new world. It was pain one day and productive pleasure the next. But it was tightly disciplined.

I quote our President His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh: “Sir Archibald McIndoe took rehabilitation a stage further. He set out both to repair physical damage and to reinvigorate the mind. The Guinea Pig Club was a vital, and highly successful, part of the process. This pioneering work was accomplished at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. The surgeon, the hospital and the club are now part of medical history.”

Diagram showing the complex workings of a saline bath, 1940s (Acc. 17362, T172)

The photograph at the top of this blog shows a saline bath in operation, capturing one of McIndoe’s pioneering techniques in action. McIndoe had noted that airmen who had suffered burns and had come down at sea had a much better rate of recovery than those who had crashed on land. This observation led to the introduction of regular warm saline baths as part of the treatment programme at Queen Victoria Hospital. The baths helped to encourage granulation and kept the wounds flexible, improving the outcome for patients. As the photograph demonstrates, saline baths could also be used to help remove dressings. Drawings among McIndoe’s own papers in the Queen Victoria Hospital Archive, such as the one above, show how the saline baths worked.

Medical drawing showing operation on hands, 1942 (Acc. 17362)

In 2015 West Sussex Record Office and the Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust were awarded a grant from the Wellcome Trust of £72,952 to preserve this nationally and internationally significant archive. Working in partnership with the Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, East Grinstead Museum and the Guinea Pig Club, this funding will enable the Record Office to catalogue and conserve the archive (which includes McIndoe’s working papers) and to digitise the patient case-files of the Guinea Pig Club so that these records can be made accessible for medical research and for future generations. The project will also include the medical drawings of Mollie Lentaigne, held at East Grinstead Museum. Mollie Lentaigne was a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse, who worked at the hospital and depicted surgical procedures in the theatre as operations were carried out. Work on the project started in March 2016 and it is due to finish in the summer of 2017.

East Grinstead Museum

Blond McIndoe Research Foundation

Queen Victoria Hospital

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