The 'Guinea Pig Club' of World War 2

By | 08:00 2 comments

They say that 'looks aren't everything' but tell that to a man who returns from war without a face.

 Dennis 'Eyes Higher' Neale. Photograph: Lucinda Marland

"We were coming into land after completing a night mission." explains Dennis 'Eyes Higher' Neale; "Enemy planes had followed us back to base, so the runway lights were switched off. Our plane landed safely but the next one got it wrong and landed on top of ours; the propeller sliced through the aircraft and my face. It almost took away the whole of my face - my cheekbone and right eye socket were smashed. My nasal bone went through the roof of my mouth; both jaws were broken. I was in a coma for a month.
When I was well enough, Archie had me transferred to the hospital at East Grinstead, where he carried out nine operations over two years to rebuild my face."
The RAF was always one of the more devastating branches of the army, specially when it reached its height in World War 2. The complex machines - with their lifeblood of fuel and cargo of bombs, their spinning blades and dizzying heights - were death traps when a mission turned wrong. For the man lucky enough to survive disaster often the injuries were horrific.

Sir Archibald Monroe established the 'Guinea Pig Club' primarily out of burn victims, choosing them to undertake revolutionary new procedures in plastic surgery and psychological care. Many of the treatments had not been tried before or were in their infancy: for example, Monroe pioneered the 'tubed pedacle' method of growing tubes of flesh on his patients faces that, once long enough, provided a vital resource of integrated skin that could be moulded into new noses and replacement skin for burns.

Tubed Pedicle procedure for Mr Foxley

These men often had little to lose so gladly took on the roles of Monroe's 'Guinea Pigs': for many of them, they were either too ashamed to return to their families or had already been shunned by fearful lovers. Monroe and his staff created a community for them to fit into once again, and encouraged them to go out into the world. The town they resided in soon was known as 'the town that didn't stare'. monroe encouraged the men to stay in uniform rather than confining them to hospital gowns, turned a blind eye to some rowdiness and even the relationships some of the men developed with their nurses and fostered a thriving black humor in his patients. They were not mollycoddled and were respected and some men even went out in public to stay in the homes of kind village people who encouraged them to lead as normal a life as possible in their recovery. In the Guinea pig club the men were men, not simply patients.

At its height in the 40s the guinea pig club had 649 patients, and the members still meet every year in remembrance of Archibald Monroe and what he did for his ragtag bunch of soldiers from around the world.

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  1. The doctor's name was Archibald McIndoe, not Monroe, in case you're interested ...

  2. Whoops! Just goes to show how many times you can read and write a word and STILL see it wrong.