Queen Victoria Hospital Archive Project: ‘Women in the Wings’

The history of Queen Victoria Hospital and the Guinea Pigs can often seem a very male-dominated narrative. McIndoe and the other star plastic surgeons of the day were all men; the Guinea Pig Club was unquestionably a ‘boys’ club.’ Yet often behind the scenes women were making vital – and memorable – contributions to the work and success of the hospital. Honourable mention should go to the many nurses who worked relentlessly to care for patients in the often highly demanding and challenging environment of Ward III. Here great resilience and compassion (and sometimes forbearance) were needed to deal with the severity of the patients’ disfiguring injuries and the intensive regime of nursing care required, as well as the often rowdy and ‘laddish’ antics indulged and encouraged by McIndoe.

This post seeks to highlight three other women who, in very different ways, were uniquely important to Queen Victoria Hospital.

VAD nurse and artist Mollie Lentaigne at work

Mollie Lentaigne was aged only 17 when the Second World War broke out in 1939. Her association with Queen Victoria Hospital and the Guinea Pigs began by chance in 1941 when she attended a cocktail party held in honour of Archibald McIndoe at the home of family friends. Lentaigne caught McIndoe’s attention when he noticed her drawing a sketch of him from a distance. It so happened that McIndoe was on the lookout for an artist to work with him in the operating theatre to create illustrations of his surgeries. Photography in the theatre had not been a success due, apparently, to shadows thrown from various surgical instruments. McIndoe had also ‘auditioned’ two other artists already, both of whom, he said, had fainted at the sight of blood. Impressed with both the quality and the speed of Lentaigne’s drawing, McIndoe invited her to come to QVH and try out the role.

Illustration of an eye injury by Mollie Lentaigne

Lentaigne began work at QVH as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, and despite her inexperience, became a great success as McIndoe’s medical artist, remaining at the hospital until the end of the war, when the intense workload began to give her trouble with her eyesight and doctors ordered her to take a year off drawing. Lentaigne travelled to India as a nurse and later to South Africa and Zimbabwe, which became her adopted home. Lentaigne’s striking artwork is now held at East Grinstead Museum and was digitised as part of the WSRO’s Wellcome Trust project. It provides a detailed – and beautiful – visual record of the pioneering operations carried out by McIndoe and his team.

The indomitable Elaine Blond was one of the most important supporters and benefactors of Queen Victoria Hospital for over 40 years. The daughter of Sir Michael Marks, the founder of Marks and Spencer, Blond and her second husband, industrialist Neville Blond, became close friends with Sir Archibald McIndoe when they were living in East Grinstead during the war. Blond had already been a supporter of the hospital prior to her second marriage (in 1944) and famously opened up her home, Saint Hill Manor, as a place for the Guinea Pigs to convalesce, as well as organising dinners, social events and entertainments for them.

Elaine Blond

In 1959, Elaine and Neville provided funding for the building of a block of laboratories in the hospital grounds, where vital research into such areas as tissue transplantation could be undertaken. The Blond McIndoe Medical Research Centre was opened in 1961. Both Elaine* and Neville sat on the committee of the newly formed East Grinstead Research Trust who organised the finances and policy of the centre. The Blonds also provided further funds a year or two later to cover the expansion of the centre, and their generosity also enabled the founding of a much needed modern, specialised burns unit, named the McIndoe Burns Unit, which opened in 1965.

Blond’s active involvement in many aspects of the life of the hospital is well documented in the QVH archive. She took a huge interest in the Guinea Pigs, and participated in the running of the Welfare Committee alongside McIndoe as well as sitting on the House Committee of the hospital and becoming President of the hospital’s League of Friends. A set of report books for nurses’ homes shows Blond (together with Lady McIndoe) carefully inspecting the accommodation provided for the nurses and making recommendations for improvements. After the death of her husband Neville in 1970, Elaine took on his role as Chairman of the East Grinstead Research Trust and threw herself wholeheartedly into the task. In 1984, Elaine Blond became only the third woman ever to receive the honour of being made a Member of the Court of Patrons of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Theatre sister Jill Mullins

Theatre sister Jill Mullins was for many years a key member of McIndoe’s team in the operating theatre. She first met McIndoe in 1931 when both were working at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, where Mullins (at the age of only 21) was already in charge of one of the operating theatres. In 1935 she joined McIndoe in his Harley Street practice alongside anaesthetist John Hunter and the formidable team later known to the Guinea Pig Club as ‘The Immortal Trio’ was born. When war broke out in 1939, Mullins accompanied McIndoe to East Grinstead and worked alongside him in treating the Guinea Pigs. She was much-loved by the patients and known for her great competence and efficiency as a theatre sister, her exceptional post-operative patient care – and for her perfect professional ‘chemistry’ with McIndoe. In the operating theatre, the two worked in complete, instinctive synchronisation, with Mullins always seeming to know exactly which instrument McIndoe required, and when. Her knowledge and understanding of surgery came to the fore when she took a leading role in designing the theatres for the new American Wing of the hospital which opened in 1946, and introduced many innovations which filtered down to operating theatres elsewhere.

McIndoe and Mullins in theatre, 1940s

Jill Mullins remained as McIndoe’s surgical assistant until 1957, when she moved to South Africa due to her husband’s business. Tragically she died of a stroke whilst travelling on board ship to Johannesburg in 1959, aged only 49. McIndoe was devastated by her death and praised her many remarkable qualities in a touching tribute in the Guinea Pig magazine, perhaps summing up his feelings most clearly when he wrote: ‘Sometimes I had to operate without her. To me it was hell.’

*Elaine Blond took up the place on the committee of the East Grinstead Research Trust left open following the death of Sir Archibald McIndoe in April 1960.

Joanna McConville, Project Archivist

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