‘It has been described as the most exclusive club in the world, but the entrance fee is something most men would not care to pay and the conditions of membership are arduous in the extreme.’
Archibald McIndoe on the Guinea Pig Club
One of the most remarkable legacies of the war years at Queen Victoria Hospital was the formation of an organisation with which the hospital – and East Grinstead – have since become inextricably linked: the Guinea Pig Club. It seems particularly apt to talk about the club at the time when the Royal Air Force is celebrating its centenary as of course the club was comprised in large part of servicemen from the RAF, (in addition to a number of Alllied aircrew) who were treated in Ward III* at QVH for burn injuries sustained in active service. Although it is sometimes assumed that the club was devised by plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe as part of his programme of patient rehabilitation, it was in fact initiated independently by a group of these patients themselves.
The process of treatment and recovery from severe burns was long and demanding, involving multiple operations which took place over many months and even years. Lengthy periods of hospitalisation with time to fill, together with the sense of connection created through shared experiences quickly helped to create strong bonds between many of the injured airmen of Ward III. These were enhanced further by the informal, sociable atmosphere which McIndoe very deliberately cultivated in the ward.
The normal strict rules and rigid daily routine which prevailed in the rest of QVH (in common with other hospitals of the period) were entirely dispensed with. Formal relationships between patients and staff were relaxed, there were no set mealtimes, and patients were given a considerable amount of freedom. A large part of McIndoe’s therapeutic model, which will be discussed in more detail in later posts, meant helping to boost his patients’ morale by allowing these still active, energetic young men to amuse themselves and let off steam to a large extent as they wished; drinking, practical jokes and ribald humour often being the order of the day.
It was in such an environment that, on a Sunday morning in June or July 1941 (accounts differ on which), a group of the airmen, sharing a bottle of sherry in a hut in the hospital grounds set aside as an entertainment space, concocted the idea of forming a ‘grogging club’. Those present drew up a set of rules, settled on a subscription and shortly afterwards wrote a letter to McIndoe asking him to be their President. The patients’ characteristic dark sense of humour was evident in the roles which different club members were assigned; Pilot Officer Peter Weekes, for example, confined to a wheelchair due to the severity of the burns to his legs, deliberately being chosen as treasurer as he could not escape with the funds. The club was originally called ‘The Maxillonians’, in reference to the maxillo-facial unit at QVH in which the members received their treatment, and the club’s founding is recorded in the 1941 annual report of the unit, which reads that:
‘Its object was to promote good fellowship and to cement the many friendships which were formed not only between the patients themselves but with the Medical Staff.’
Membership of the club was confined to those who had been ‘mashed, boiled or fried’ on service in the air force and subsequently operated on at QVH, in addition to many of the surgical and medical staff who treated them (although not including the women). By the time of the club’s first reunion dinner in January 1942 (which was to become an annual event, continuing every year until 2007), the club members had renamed themselves the Guinea Pig Club in reference to the pioneering nature of many of the surgeries they had undergone.
This is the first of two posts on the Guinea Pig club, and will focus on the background and circumstances of its formation. The second post, which will go online on 13th April, will cover its long-term role in providing a support network for the injured aircrew of Queen Victoria Hospital.
*Ward III at QVH was the ward set aside for treating burns patients, primarily from the RAF and Allied air forces, and was presided over by Archibald McIndoe.
Joanna McConville, Project Archivist