One of the most interesting aspects of burns work undertaken by Archibald McIndoe during the Second World War (see Wednesday’s post) was the establishment of the Guinea Pig Club. The Guinea Pigs were members of WWII Royal Air Force air crews who had undergone at least two operations for their burns injuries at East Grinstead Hospital, where McIndoe was based. Originally intended to be a drinking club for patients whose injuries could be dangerously dehydrating (see Monday’s post), it counted 39 members at its launch in June 1941, a year after the Battle of Britain. By the end of the war, there were 649 Guinea Pigs, most of whom were British (62%), but it also included Canadians (20%), Australians (6%) and New Zealanders (6%); 80% had served as bomber crew during the war. As war historian Emily Mayhew has suggested, the Club was ‘an attempt to institutionalise the unique spirit of the patient community at East Grinstead’ in order to aid the psychological recovery of burn victims. Patients collectively attended operations, assisted newcomers and otherwise offered support to each other when necessary.
‘Dealing with Disfigurement’
Rather than hide away these severely disfigured airmen, McIndoe considered both their physical and (as he termed it) psychical wellbeing. He recognised that patients relied on their surgeon ‘for mental support, for hope and encouragement.’ But he also encouraged his patients to resume ordinary lives, often commencing with a joint visit to a local pub. Most wanted to resume normal lives, but their wounds often made this more difficult than expected. McIndoe knew that his patients would inevitably attract much attention the moment they ventured into town to frequent pubs or restaurants, so he prepared the residents of East Grinstead for potential encounters with patients, some of whom were mid-operation, with tube pedicle grafts nearly in place to reconstruct missing chins or noses. He also invited key members of the town into the wards, encouraging them to become ambassadors in the community by regularly hosting concerts and balls, where patients mingled with locals. In this way, he made the residents of East Grinstead recognise and accept his patients and focus on their contributions to society, rather than their disfigurements. In the process, East Grinstead became known as ‘the town that didn’t stare’, while the hospital developed an international reputation for its Maxilla-Facial Unit. The staff was so successful at its work that 80% of aircrew patients eventually returned to flying duties. Such success continued into peacetime, but the details of McIndoe’s civilian work has been less documented. Despite the positive experiences of East Grinstead Guinea Pigs, many inevitably faced challenges when they re-entered their former communities. That said, many had learned how to deal with these difficult encounters from their membership of the Guinea Pig Club; a group of about 60 original members continue to meet.
Psychological support for burns patients has continued to grow since 1941. The emotional load on staff at burns units has also been recognised, with many practitioners expressing their own challenges coping with the onerous duties involved in caring for these unique patients. Unusually, when Guinea Pigs visited America following the war, their faces were kept out of the press for fear of alarming the public. Americans would inevitably learn about the psychological impact of burns in their own ways. The 1942 Coconut Grove nightclub fire in Boston was not the worst urban fire in twentieth-century America, but it had a huge impact on burns treatment. Besides directing attention to the consequences of inhalation injury, it provided valuable insights into the immediate and long-term psychological impact of severe burns and the importance of supporting patients after their physical wounds healed. As obvious as some of these lessons were, it seems they need to be relearned every decade or so. More often these days, the memories of disasters, collective and individual, are kept alive by patient groups. Many American victims of burns and scalds owe their emotional recovery to the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, a national organisation dedicated to burns patient support, public education and advocacy. In Britain, patients with burns receive the support of similar organisations, including Changing Faces, BurnAid and the Katie Piper Foundation. So successful have burns units become at saving humans that their challenges have shifted. Many victims now expect medical teams to save lives and even restore former appearances. It is with such expectations that support groups also help a new generation of patients.
Jonathan Reinarz wishes to thank Emily Mayhew, Rebecca Wynter, Naiem Moiemen, Tony Metcalfe, Shah Mamta, Ken Dunn and James Partridge for their help with his research.
Dr Jonathan Reinarz is Director of The History of Medicine Unit and a Reader in the History of Medicine at the University of Birmingham.