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Archibald McIndoe (1900-60)

Archibald McIndoe was born in New Zealand but trained with his cousin Harold Gillies in the UK. McIndoe became consultant surgeon to the Royal Air Force and specialised in plastic surgery.

Although plastic surgery was a speciality established during the First World War, there were only three experienced plastic surgeons in Britain when the Second World War broke out in 1939. One of them was McIndoe. As a civilian surgeon, he was not constricted by military rules and regulations. He set up a specialist hospital in East Grinstead to treat ‘airman’s burn’, which was caused when a plane’s fuel tanks exploded. The unprotected hands and face of the pilot could be severely burned. McIndoe treated several hundred airman, skilfully performing plastic surgery to give them new faces and hands. Many of them went back to fly again.

McIndoe’s patients became known as ‘McIndoe’s guinea pigs’ as much experimental work was performed on them. Many painful operations were performed, sometimes over several years, until their faces and hands were reconstructed. The patients formed the Guinea Pig Club to help them readjust to their new faces. McIndoe instructed the local people around the hospital not to stare or make a fuss about the airman, but help them reintegrate back into the community. Thus they gained confidence in going to the pub or shopping with their new faces.


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