Commemorating World War II Surgeon, Sir Archibald McIndoe

Blogger: GemSen Like many others in the medical profession, World War II plastic surgeon, Sir Archibald McIndoe concentrated on his patients rather than any notoriety. McIndoe will not go down as an unsung hero though, and a sculpture has been recently designed to pay tribute to his great work. It’s not the first time his great skills will have been recognised though, and during the war McIndoe had achieved international fame for his pioneering work with plastic surgery. This included inventing new techniques to treat the hundreds of badly burned World War II Allied aircrew, who McIndoe fondly called his ‘guinea pigs’ for his experimental techniques in skin grafting and repair. McIndoe was born in New Zealand and after being awarded a Fellowship to study pathological anatomy in the United States he published several papers on chronic liver disease. In 1931 he came to London searching for fresh challenges and new opportunities, but initially couldn’t find any work, so on the suggestion of Sir Harold Gillies he started his career in plastic surgery. War changed everything… War also changed and shaped McIndoe’s career even further and at the outbreak of World War II there were only four fully experienced plastic surgeons in Britain including McIndoe. They were divided up to head up four separate plastic surgery units requested by the government to treat the influx of injured servicemen from various branches of the armed services. McIndoe moved to the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, and founded a Centre for Plastic and Jaw Surgery and dealing with RAF casualties. Pilots often suffered horrific burns and the Hurricane and Spitfire fighter planes were both powered by big engines that carried large quantities of highly inflammable aviation fuel. When struck by enemy fire the fighters often went up in flames that spread very quickly. Most pilots would also remove their protective gloves and goggles during flying to aid control of the aircraft which unfortunately also exposed them to even greater levels of injury. According to McIndoe the current burns treatments of the time were poor and the use of tannic acid and tannic jelly did more harm than good and successfully encouraged the ban of tannic acid treatments. McIndoe devised new ways to treat burns and not only was he concerned with technical innovation but also cared about the rehabilitation and reintegration of burns survivors back into society. The work of McIndoe was vital in helping to restore the lives of these war casualties which included the healing of physical and mental scars. How great to hear a story about plastic surgery being performed not in order to reverse the ageing process, or to plump up people’s lips, but for such great medical reasons with such a life changing impact. McIndoe lived and worked in East Grinstead from 1939 until his death in 1939 and the town was a crucial part of their rehabilitation and its role will be mentioned on the base of the new statue, commissioned from Martin Jennings. Jennings is a renowned British sculptor, whose statue of Sir John Betjeman at St Pancras station is now a celebrated London landmark. He has also completed a statue of Philip Larkin in the City of Hull. Personal link What makes this story ever more interesting though is that Martin has a rather personal link with his statue, not just because he created it, but because his own father Michael was treated by McIndoe. Martin’s father was badly burned when a shell hit his tank in 1944. “It is a tremendous honour to have been commissioned to undertake a sculpture of this remarkable man. He helped restore not only the bodies of these disfigured young men but crucially their minds too” said Martin Jennings. “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. I feel very lucky now to have been given the opportunity to express that gratitude on my father’s behalf”. The design of the 7ft bronze sculpture shows one of McIndoe’s guinea pigs – a badly burned airman looking upwards to the skies where he used to fly, and also to his doctor for reassurance. McIndoe’s hands are placed reassuringly on the airman’s soldiers, suggesting the communication of his confidence. It has been recorded that McIndoe's patients recovered so well not only because of McIndoe's surgical skills but also because of the power of his strong and positive belief that they would go on to lead productive lives, despite the traumas they had suffered. The statue is estimated to cost around £170,000 and should hopefully go up in a prominent location in East Grinstead, in 2014. For more information on the statue and how to donate please visit the Blond McIndoe Research Foundation. Those in the medical profession during war simply got on with their jobs and many are considered unsung heroes for that very reason. Were any of your family nurses or doctors during the war? What stories do you have to tell? Comment below and shine a light on the past of your relatives. Alternatively, if you are trying to find out more about your family and their military past search our wealth of war records via the Forces War Records website. Source: Blond McIndoe Research Foundation
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