Rebuilding a badly burned nose
required a pedicle, or temporary
bridge of tissue between chest
and nose. Flight Lieutenant
Charles Goldhamer, Patient with
War Museum, 19710261-3889.
The nature of air force casualties was
quite different from those in the army or
navy. Many pilots and bomber crew casualties
suffered debilitating injuries and disfigurement
when their planes were shot down or otherwise
crashed. The fate of a fighter pilot could
be especially grim, sitting directly behind
the plane's fuel tank, which often ignited
causing horrific burns. The Queen Victoria
Cottage Hospital in East Grinstead, 50 kilometres
south of London, became an air force hospital
specializing in burns and plastic surgery.
The hospital was run by a New Zealander,
Dr. Archibald McIndoe, and a Canadian Wing
was opened in 1944 led by Dr. Ross Tilley
of Bowmanville, Ontario. The men treated
at the Queen Victoria each faced a difficult
When a man is lying in
bed bandaged from head to toe, with eyelids
gone, without a nose, it is hard to think
of a useful life to come, harder still
to believe there might be love and joy
in his future. His life has crashed and
burned and he is perhaps nineteen, perhaps
twenty-one. Does he want to die? Quite
possibly. He is in agony. If he is from
a farm he remembers the merciful way a
gravely injured animal is put down. Does
he want to live? Hard to imagine when
everything he once saw in his future,
a few days ago, has disappeared in a blinding
flash (Rita Donovan, As for the
Canadians: the Remarkable Story of the
RCAF's "Guinea Pigs" of World
War II, 2000, p. 18-19).
Canadian Ward at Queen Victoria
Cottage Hospital, East Grinstead.
of National Defence / National
Archives of Canada / PA-205331.
Fortunately, McIndoe was a visionary who
did not allow orthodoxy or military bureaucracy
to interfere with the treatment of his patients.
Among other unusual measures, he arranged
for the elimination of rank segregation,
standard in other military hospitals, as
well as the hated patient garments, because
a "man lost his identity in the hospital
blues... McIndoe felt that if anyone had
earned the right to wear their uniforms
it was these men" (Donovan, p. 19).
McIndoe and other members of the staff believed
that their duty was to do more than return
their patients to their units; with such
horrible injuries, caring for the patients'
emotional needs could be just as important
as healing the physical wounds. He decided
that because these men would normally have
been "going out for a drink and flirting
with the girls", beer should be made
available in the hospital ward. Regular
outings to local pubs in East Grinstead
were arranged, so patients would be forced
to conquer, early in their recovery, their
fear of being seen by "normal"
people. "As for the girls, well, [McIndoe]
reasoned that any young man, scarred or
unscarred, was interested in a pretty face.
So he recruited the best-looking nurses
he could find. After all, an attractive
woman who would talk to and joke with a
patient would make that patient far more
likely to start feeling good about himself"
(Donovan, p. 20).
The men who came to the Queen Victoria
kept self-pity in check with the realization
that "there was always someone worse
off than you were" (Donovan, p. 25).
McIndoe's compassion coupled with new techniques-saline
baths, sulfa, and penicillin being more
widely used while the traditional treatment
with tannic acid went into decline-made
possible a more complete recovery than in
earlier times. The camaraderie born from
the sharing of similar, difficult circumstances
led the patients to christen themselves
The Guinea Pig Club. The Club, in true wartime
spirit, even had its own anthem:
We are McIndoe's
We are his Guinea Pigs.
With dermatomes and pedicles,
Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs.
And when we get our discharge
We'll shout with all our might:
'Per ardua ad astra,'
We'd rather drink than fight.
John Hunter runs the gas works,
Ross Tilley wields a knife.
And if they are not careful
They'll have your flaming life.
So, Guinea Pigs, stand steady
For all your surgeon's calls;
And if their hands aren't steady
They'll whip off both your ears.
We've had some mad Australians,
Some French, some Czechs, some Poles.
We've even had some Yankees,
God bless their precious souls.
While as for the Canadians-
Ah! That's a different thing.
They couldn't stand our accent
And built a separate Wing.
(quoted in Donovan, p. 16)