On 2 November, His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh unveiled a memorial to The Guinea Pig Club at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire. Paul Hughesdon, Director of Welfare and Policy at the Fund, attended and tells us about the Club and the very special day.
What a stunningly beautiful day – with the leaves turning and the low sun shining brightly at the National Arboretum – to honour the heroic and inspirational Guinea Pig Club.
The end of the Second World War saw a mass demobilisation of men from the RAF, all of whom needed to reintegrate into civilian life and, for many who joined the RAF straight out of school, begin their working lives in civilian jobs.
But the challenges of 'civvy street' were even more daunting for the 649 members of The Guinea Pig Club – a collection of Allied airmen whose abiding connection was that they had suffered severe burns and undergone pioneering plastic surgery by Archibald (later Sir Archibald) McIndoe at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. In so doing, they became his "Guinea Pigs" and members of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, a club that no one wanted to join.
During their months or years of treatments, some of the Guinea Pigs took on very strange appearances, as skin was slowly grafted to their faces from their arms and chests. This was pioneering work and could be very uncomfortable for the unaccustomed to see, yet McIndoe insisted his Guinea Pigs go out in town to the cinema, pub, and dance hall as part of their mental rehabilitation. In fact, because of Sir Archibald's leadership and concern for his patients, East Grinstead took the Guinea Pigs to heart and will forever be known as The Town that Never Stared.
Despite McIndoe's excellent work, Guinea Pigs were usually left with visible scars and disfigurements that they carried into the outside world, which marked them out as a group of unusual survivors.
In their usual determined fashion and despite their disfigurements, most Guinea Pigs found love and married happily. In doing so and by even seeking jobs, the Guinea Pigs were challenging the perception of the time that disabilities were life-limiting and should be kept from public gaze. And in finding jobs and going on to lead successful lives, they not only showed their mettle but also blazed a trail for later generations of burns survivors and injured service personnel.
The Memorial unveiled by His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh at the National Arboretum, 75 years after the Club was formed, is an honour to the Club and to its inspiring legacy.
As Guinea Pig Jack Toper said: "The Guinea Pigs have been there to mentor new generations of burns victims, including Service personnel injured in the Falklands, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We can tell them that their life is not over. It is beginning a new phase, but it is up to them what they want to do with it."
The Guinea Pigs are a true inspiration and embody the Royal Air Force motto, Per Ardua ad Astra – through Adversity to the Stars. That seven of the remaining 28 Guinea Pigs were able to attend made the day so special. And we must recognise the vision and energy of Dr Sandy Saunders and his delightful wife Maggie, who made possible the excellent memorial that will stand as a lasting tribute to the Guinea Pigs.
The Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund has been proudly supporting Guinea Pigs since 1941, and we still do today, adapting our support as their needs and circumstances change. And while we will continue to support them, we are also determined to share their stories and ensure their legacy lives on.