He was known as “the Maestro,” the Royal Air Force plastic surgeon who transformed the face of his profession as he treated pilots who were badly burned during World War II.
Sir Archibald McIndoe, who was recently remembered in the Journal of Burn Care & Research, also realized the value of social reintegration earlier than almost anyone at the time.
When burned pilots were transferred to his East Grinstead hospital in the weeks following the Battle of Britain, McIndoe was one of only four plastic surgeons in the country. The brilliant and charismatic surgeon developed new techniques when little was known about the treatment of severe burns, reconstructing hands and faces that had been disfigured. Time Magazine wrote that McIndoe would “take charred, featureless living remains and remake them into presentable human beings.”
But McIndoe didn’t stop there; he knew that physical recovery was only half the battle, and that his patients needed to be prepared for the world beyond the hospital. McIndoe arranged for his patients to be invited to events and to attend theater and film openings. The recovering war heroes no longer hid because of their injuries, and thanks to McIndoe’s efforts, East Grinstead became known as “the town that didn’t stare.”
Patients even formed a drinking club called the Guinea Pig Club, named after the experimental nature of McIndoe’s treatments.
“We are McIndoe’s army,
We are his Guinea Pigs.
With dermatomes and pedicles,
Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs.”
– From the Guinea Pig Anthem
By the end of the war there were over 600 members, and the club still meets today to offer help to burn patients. Sir Archibald McIndoe died in 1960, but his legacy lives on in the tradition of reconstructive plastic surgery, which continues to help injured soldiers, accident victims, and many others who suffer from disfigurement.