This post will provide a general overview of McIndoe’s life and work. Later posts will examine different aspects of his work at Queen Victoria Hospital in more depth.
The man who became known as ‘the Maestro’ of Queen Victoria Hospital was born in Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand on 4th May 1900 to parents John McIndoe, a printer, and Mabel, an artist. He attended Otago Boys’ High School where he excelled scholastically as well as in music, shooting and gymnastics. In 1919, having made the decision to become a doctor, he entered the Medical School of Otago University on a scholarship, where he developed an early fascination with surgery, gaining the senior clinical surgery medal in his final year.
In 1924, McIndoe was recommended for a scholarship to the famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and by the end of that year had left his home country behind for good and moved to the States. It was a formative time for McIndoe. The Mayo Clinic was a place of innovation and a hub for all the latest developments in surgery and medicine. Here McIndoe was encouraged to experiment and developed a particular interest and skill in abdominal surgery and diseases of the liver.
This work brought McIndoe to the attention of Lord Moynihan, then President of the Royal College of Surgeons in England. At a surgical convention in Chicago, Moynihan was amongst of a group of medical specialists who observed McIndoe’s demonstration of his new technique for operating on a carcinoma of the liver. An impressed Moynihan encouraged McIndoe to bring his talents to England, suggesting there would be a job for him in a new hospital he was building. On the strength of this McIndoe bid goodbye to the Mayo Clinic and moved his family to London – only to discover on arrival that neither the hospital nor the job yet existed.
Despite this inauspicious start, McIndoe’s career soon took a dramatic turn through his discovery that the distinguished surgeon Sir Harold Gillies was in fact a distant cousin. Gillies’ ground-breaking work rebuilding the faces of First World War soldiers damaged and disfigured by gunshot wounds, shrapnel and the like had led him to be regarded as the father of modern plastic surgery. Gillies became a mentor to McIndoe, and as McIndoe began to assist Gillies with his plastic surgery cases, he discovered a new interest and aptitude for this type of surgery. He began work in Gillies’ practice and in time became his junior partner, alongside another New Zealander, Rainsford Mowlem. It was during this time that McIndoe learned many of the skills and techniques of reconstructive surgery which were to form the basis for his work during the Second World War.
In 1938, McIndoe took over from Gillies as Representative Consultant in Plastic Surgery to the RAF and at the outbreak of war in September 1939 he was posted to Queen Victoria Hospital to head up the new Maxillo-facial* unit under the government’s Emergency Medical Scheme.
It is impossible to do justice here to all of what McIndoe achieved during his time at East Grinstead. In response to an unprecedented influx of burns casualties from members of the RAF and Allied aircrew, he initiated a painstaking new regime of treatment based on the regular use of saline baths and dedicated nursing care which became influential through all the medical military services. Applying and refining the surgical techniques he had acquired from Gillies, McIndoe worked tirelessly to repair and rebuild faces rendered unrecognisable by devastating burns. With the quantity of reconstructive work now needed far exceeding the number of trained plastic surgeons, McIndoe’s expertise brought countless younger surgeons to QVH to learn from him.
Perhaps most significantly of all, he took a holistic approach to healing and rehabilitation which involved taking responsibility for his patients’ emotional and psychological well-being as well as their physical recovery. He saw his role as enabling them to fully re-integrate into a ‘normal’ life and challenged head-on the societal barriers and prejudices which confronted those suffering facial disfigurement.
When the war was over McIndoe remained at Queen Victoria Hospital, but as the service casualties gradually began to be replaced with civilian patients he began to divide his time between East Grinstead and his private practice in Harley Street. Alongside his former partners Harold Gillies and Rainsford Mowlem, he was closely involved in the foundation of the first British Association of Plastic Surgeons (BAPS) who had their inaugural meeting in 1946.
In 1947 he was awarded a knighthood for his wartime work. In the years which followed he operated on patients ranging from victims of industrial accidents to film stars wanting a nose job, at the same time taking an active role in training a generation of new surgeons in the art of plastic surgery. He also never ceased in the battles he fought on behalf of his Guinea Pigs, doing all he could to ensure that they continued to be taken care of and given every opportunity to make a success of life beyond the confines of QVH.
Archibald McIndoe died suddenly in his sleep on 12th April 1960 aged just 59; his daughter believed that the intensity of his work had finally caught up with him and he was ‘literally worn out.’ A memorial service was held for him in the RAF church of St Clement Danes, where his ashes were also interred – a unique honour for a civilian.
His memory is still held in high esteem in East Grinstead, where a memorial statue of him was unveiled in the High Street in 2014.
*Maxillo-facial surgery deals with injuries and conditions of the face and jaw
Joanna McConville, Project Archivist