Queen Victoria Hospital Archive Project: Guinea Pigs for life

This is the second of two posts about the Guinea Pig club.

Guinea Pigs enjoy drinks with McIndoe, Christmas 1948

As discussed in our previous post (see ‘Introducing the Guinea Pig Club’), the Guinea Pig Club began its existence as a social and drinking club. However, it was not long before it became much more than that. Archibald McIndoe was quick to recognise the potential of the club in helping to enact his own holistic philosophy of patient care. The foundation of the Guinea Pig Club helped to consolidate and maintain bonds of friendship and the environment of mutual support and camaraderie which existed amongst the patients of Ward III, and which McIndoe considered to be such an important aspect of their rehabilitation and recovery.

There were also other very practical benefits. The raison d’être of the annual reunion dinners, the first of which was held in 1942, was of course to provide an occasion for old friends and comrades to re-connect. These events, which often extended over a day or two and were referred to by the Guinea Pig club members as ‘The Lost Weekend’*, were a chance both to share old memories and create new ones and played a crucial part in helping to establish a sense of belonging and shared identity amongst the Guinea Pigs. At the same time, however, they also became an extremely useful opportunity, with Guinea Pigs all congregating together, for McIndoe (and later his successors) to check on the Guinea Pigs’ physical recovery and identify where patients needed further treatment or surgery.

Account of the 1963 Lost Weekend, which 200 people attended

As a formal organisation, which became a registered charity in 1945, the Guinea Pig Club became a source of advice, support and advocacy for its members as they sought to re-adjust to life in the world outside of Queen Victoria Hospital and East Grinstead. McIndoe and others such as Welfare Officer Edward Blacksell, and anaesthetist Russell Davies, who took up honorary positions on the club’s committee alongside a number of the Guinea Pigs, worked with dedication, liaising with the RAF, with employers and others to assist and promote the interests of the Guinea Pigs and provide for the security of their future in the long term.

The Guinea Pig Club also launched its own magazine, known as the Guinea Pig, the first issue of which was published in April 1944, and this became an invaluable means by which members of the club continued to maintain contact and share news years after they had left the hospital and dispersed around the world.

Guinea Pig Club magazine

It is a tribute to the determination of the Guinea Pigs, and to the success of the support network fostered by the club that so many of its members went on to lead full, active lives after the war, challenging contemporary expectations of disability and disfigurement. A number of Guinea Pigs went on to fly again, some working for civilian airlines after the war. Some Guinea Pig Club members, such as Sandy Saunders and Bertram Owen-Smith, were so inspired by the transformative work of the team at Queen Victoria Hospital that they went on to pursue careers in medicine. Owen-Smith who had been an insurance clerk before the war, ended up training to become a plastic surgeon. Others, such as Sam Gallop, became vocal advocates for disability rights, and many more used their experience to inspire new generations of burns victims. The story of the Guinea Pig Club is one which shows what can be achieved when people are prepared to act as, in the words of McIndoe, ‘the trustees of each other’.

*A typically irreverent reference to the copious amounts of alcohol enjoyed on the occasion by some of the Guinea Pigs.

Joanna McConville, Project Archivist

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