Royal unveiling for pioneering East Grinstead plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe

© Lucinda Marland

© Lucinda Marland - Credit: Lucinda Marland

East Grinstead commemorates pioneering plastic surgeon and founder of The Guinea Pig Club, Sir Archibald McIndoe

The life of Sir Archibald McIndoe, whose exceptional achievements in the treatment of badly burned Allied aircrew, famously called his Guinea Pigs, has been commemorated in his adopted hometown of East Grinstead. The bronze statue of McIndoe, with his arms reassuringly on a patient’s shoulders, was unveiled last month by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, Patron of The Blond McIndoe Research Foundation.

The statue was sculpted by Martin Jennings, whose bronzes of Sir John Betjeman at St Pancras station and Charles Dickens in Portsmouth are celebrated landmarks. Coincidentally, Martin Jennings’ own father, Michael, was badly burned when a shell hit his tank in 1944 and he was treated by Sir Archibald in East Grinstead.

McIndoe, who died in 1960, was a brilliant surgeon. He developed new techniques and recognised the importance of the rehabilitation of the casualties back into normal life, particularly socially. He was instrumental in creating the famous Guinea Pig Club, formed from his patients who underwent reconstructive plastic surgery during World War II. It started as a drinking club with 39 patients, and grew by the end of the war to 649, including Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, French, Russians, Czechs and Poles.

Encouraged by McIndoe, its members revelled in a black sense of humour: the first treasurer had severely damaged legs, meaning he could not run off with the money, and another with damaged fingers was appointed secretary so he could not take tedious minutes.

After the war McIndoe was awarded a knighthood and became President of the Royal College of Surgeons, a founding member of the British Association of Plastic Surgeons (BAPS) and in 1956 co-founded the flying doctor service in East Africa (AMREF).

“Sir Archibald lived and worked in East Grinstead from 1939 till his death and saved and improved many people’s lives. It is fitting to have this memorial to him,” said Jacquie Pinney from the McIndoe Memorial steering group and CEO of the BlondMcIndoe Research Foundation. ”We are extremely grateful to all the hundreds of individuals and the local businesses that have supported our appeal, which will remain open.”

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Sculptor Martin Jennings said: “I have represented McIndoe with a patient (though not a particular person) who has burns to his face and hands but still wears his RAF uniform, as McIndoe insisted his patients should. The pilot is turning his head to look back up to the sky but also towards his doctor for reassurance. McIndoe’s hands are on the younger man’s shoulders, suggesting the communication of the surgeon’s extraordinary confidence. McIndoe managed to instil in his patients the absolute certainty that they would go on to lead productive lives despite the traumas they’d suffered.”

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