Sir Archibald McIndoe (1900-1960) was the grandson of two families with very deep links to colonial Otago. His father’s business, founded in 1893, was a feature of Dunedin’s commercial landscape until 2008. His mother, a Wellingtonian, was a sister of the famous composer of Alfred Hill, thus both were of Hills Hats fame. Archibald attended Otago Boys’ High School and went on to study medicine at the University of Otago.
He was a house surgeon at Waikato Hospital, Hamilton, and then secured the first fellowship at the Mayo Clinic (based in Minnesota) granted to a New Zealander, which he held from 1924 to 1928. McIndoe moved to London in 1930 and “came under the influence of a relative, also a New Zealander, Sir Harold Gillies, who was at that time creating the new speciality of plastic surgery at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. McIndoe became his assistant at St. Bartholomew’s and joined him in partnership in private practice as a plastic surgeon. McIndoe had found his niche. He quickly became a leading figure in his speciality, receiving many appointments to London hospitals.”
McIndoe was appointed consultant in plastic surgery to the Royal Air Force in 1938 and at the outbreak of World War 2 moved to East Grinstead, Sussex, and founded a centre for plastic and jaw surgery and treated deep burns and serious facial disfigurement. Many patients arrived with deep burns to their faces and hands caused by exploding aircraft fuel – an injury dubbed the ‘Hurricane burn’ by pilots and aircrew. During the Battle of Britain, 35 horribly burnt fighter pilots were sent to McIndoe for treatment. Standard treatment for serious burns at this time was to cover the wounds with tannic acid – the idea being that this would dry out the affected area and allow the dead skin to be removed. Unfortunately, this process was extremely painful and left patients with extensive scarring. McIndoe was convinced there was a better solution. Noting that burnt pilots who bailed out into the sea were less scarred than others, he developed the practice of bathing patients in saline. This proved to be a much gentler treatment process, with the saline solution improving healing times and survival rates for patients with extensive burns.
In addition to his innovative treatment, McIndoe dedicated much of his effort at rehabilitation. He encouraged the formation of the so-called “Guinea Pig Club”, for instance, in June 1941. This helped patients pass time during long reconstructive treatments and referred to the experimental nature of the treatments they were receiving. He worked hard to reintegrate patients back into society and encouraged them to get out into the community – many met and married women from East Grinstead: “the town that never stared”.
Membership in the “Guinea Pig Club” was confined to serving airmen who had gone through at least ten surgical procedures, and the medical staff who tended to them.
McIndoe won international recognition for his pioneering work and was knighted in 1947. He helped found the British Association of Plastic Surgeons (BAPS) and later served as its president. After he died, aged 59, he was cremated and his ashes were buried in the Royal Air Force church of St Clement Danes in London. The Blond McIndoe Research Foundation, which was opened at the Queen Victoria Hospital in 1961, continues to conduct research into treatments to improve wound healing.
The foundation’s chief executive, Jacquie Pinney, has just unveiled the design of a statue to commemorate McIndoe, “East Grinstead’s most famous adopted son”. The sculptor commissioned for the statue, Martin Jennings, was a serendipitous choice: his father, who was badly burned when a shell hit his tank in 1944, was treated by McIndoe. ”The commission is even more important to me given that he treated my father, who throughout his life said how grateful he felt to McIndoe”, said Jennings.
Jennings also noted that McIndoe’s story is “inseparable” from that of the Guinea Pig Club and the proposed statue is therefore “more than just a statue of the great surgeon.” It thus represents McIndoe with a patient, with burns to his face and hands, wearing a RAF uniform: ”The pilot is turning his head to look back up to the sky in which he can no longer fly but also towards his doctor for reassurance.” The statue is to be placed in East Grinstead, on the route he used daily to reach his patients, and will cost about £175,000. Less than £13,000 has been raised thus far so donations will be gratefully received.