As regular readers of this blog will be aware, since 2016 WSRO has been engaged in a major project involving the archive of the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, which became known during the Second World War as the centre for the treatment of the ‘Guinea Pig Club’, the RAF and Allied Air personnel who suffered severe burns and underwent major reconstructive procedures under the care of pioneering surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe.
This internationally significant archive was originally deposited with WSRO back in 2013 and included not only the 600+ case files of the original ‘Guinea Pigs’, but a further vast collection of around 14,500 other patient files (1930s-1980s) which provide a detailed record of the groundbreaking plastic surgery and reconstructive work which continued at Queen Victoria Hospital over these years. The archive also contained a range of documents and volumes relating to the history and administration of the hospital from 1930s onwards, as well as a number of Archibald McIndoe’s own files and working papers.
In 2015 WSRO and the Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust were awarded a Wellcome Trust grant of £72,952, enabling them to catalogue and preserve the archive. Part of this was to include the digitisation of the Guinea Pig case files in order to increase their accessibility for medical research, as well as to digitise a collection of medical drawings by Mollie Lentaigne, a young VAD nurse who worked at Queen Victoria Hospital during the war. These drawings, held at the East Grinstead Museum, depict in vivid and meticulous detail the surgical procedures and treatments undertaken by McIndoe and his team and provide a fascinating visual record of their extraordinary work.
The Queen Victoria Hospital Archive project has been a truly collaborative undertaking, involving two Project Archivists, a dedicated Preservation and Digitisation Assistant and the considerable efforts of the WSRO collections team, in addition to project partners Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, East Grinstead Museum and the Guinea Pig Club. Following almost two years of work which has resulted in the creation of over 25,000 digital images and an extensive online catalogue, the project is now reaching its final phase with various outreach events and activities designed to raise awareness and promote access to the archive, as well as to celebrate the remarkable history of Queen Victoria Hospital.
This post marks the first of a series on this blog relating to the archive and the wider history of the hospital which will be continuing throughout the coming months. Whilst working as Project Archivist I have become aware of just how many different narratives are bound up with Queen Victoria Hospital – the hugely significant work carried out there having such an impact on the lives of the patients and the East Grinstead community, and forming a key part of the broader stories of the Second
World War, the evolution of plastic surgery as a discipline and societal attitudes to facial disfigurement amongst others. It would be impossible to do full justice to every aspect without taking over this blog on a permanent basis (!), but this series will hopefully enable the exploration of some worthwhile and interesting topics in a little more depth with – fingers crossed – the contribution of some guest bloggers too.
March 2018 will mark the launch of our touring exhibition, aimed at ‘spreading the word’ more widely and providing an accessible general overview of the Queen Victoria Hospital archive project and key aspects of the history. This will be moving to a number of local libraries around West Sussex over the coming year, staying for around 3-4 weeks in each location. The exhibition will first be displayed here at WSRO, moving to East Grinstead in April. A full schedule of dates and locations will be published here as soon as it becomes available.
On 27th March 2018, I will be delivering ‘Stories from the Surgeon’s table – Exploring the Queen Victoria Hospital archive’ as part of our regular series of ‘Talks on Tuesdays’ at WSRO. This will be a chance to hear the story of Queen Victoria Hospital with a specific emphasis on the ways in which this is revealed through the documents in the archive, illustrated with plenty of slides. There will be the opportunity to ask questions and to peruse a selection of original documents.
This will be followed by an event on 20th April to be held at Queen Victoria Hospital to celebrate the end of the project. This will include a talk from Consultant plastic surgeon Baljit Dheansa, who will be discussing the medical significance of McIndoe’s work at the hospital, as well as a short talk about the archive.
If you would like to know more about the Queen Victoria Hospital Archive project, Archibald McIndoe and the Guinea Pig Club, please come along to Joanna McConville’s illustrated talk to be given at the Record Office on 27th March at 7pm. Tickets are priced at £8.00 each and include light refreshments. Telephone 01243 753602 to book a ticket.
Tickets for the end of project event at Queen Victoria Hospital on 2oth April will shortly be available to purchase via Eventbrite, full details and a link will be published on this blog in the near future.
Joanna McConville, Project Archivist