Meet “The Maestro” of plastic surgery, Sir Archibald McIndoe

Published 22nd June 2017

Meet “The Maestro” of plastic surgery, Sir Archibald McIndoe
In celebration of Armed Forces Day, Hamilton Fraser pays homage to an extraordinary plastic surgeon who, as the Evening News recounts in tribute, “[…] Gave New Faces To Battle of Britain Fliers”.

For 649 servicemen who underwent treatment and rehabilitation under the direction of Sir Archibald McIndoe, being a member of “The Guinea Pig” club, as it was unofficially dubbed, was a blessing.

Jack Perry was one such patient, whom the pioneering plastic surgeon promised to “fix up” after he suffered 80% burns when his Halifax bomber caught fire.

“I owe him 100 percent,” said Mr Perry. “He was just an absolutely wonderful man. He put you at your ease immediately.”

New Zealander McIndoe was the cousin of Sir Harold Gillies, who performed a skin graft on sailor Walter Yeo in 1917 in the first modern plastic surgery treatment.

McIndoe joined his cousin’s practice in 1930, and following the outbreak of World War II moved to the recently rebuilt Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex, where he founded a Centre for Plastic and Jaw Surgery.

His methods involved not just rebuilding the faces of the men he treated, but also building their confidence with his own assurance that they could go on to live their lives regardless of their changed appearance.

Nurse Margaret Chadd recalls that there was a “whole team of specialists” including Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapist and an RAF Welfare Officer, all of whom worked together with McIndoe to take responsibility for the “whole patient.”

He convinced locals to support the patients by inviting them into their homes with the help of his two friends, Neville and Elaine Bond, recognising the importance of social integration as part of the veterans’ rehabilitation.

Often, his skills as a surgeon were a matter of life and death, and he found that saline promoted healing and improved the survival rate of those patients with severe burns.

McIndoe’s contribution was recognised through the unwavering admiration of those whom he treated and was officially acknowledged 70 years later when a statue of him was unveiled on 9 June 2014 outside the Princess Royal in East Grinstead, the hospital where he worked.

When chief executive of the medical research charity Blond McIndoe, Jacquie Pinney called acclaimed sculptor Martin Jennings to create the monument, she was worried he may not have heard of McIndoe. But her concerns were unfounded.

Not only did Jennings know of the plastic surgeon, but his father Michael, a tank commander in 1944, had been treated by McIndoe after his Cromwell Tank was hit by a shell.
“His patients, like my father, were such young men,” says Martin Jennings. “They were hoping to get married, have children and a normal life. Suddenly they were plunged into the prospect of a life of passivity and victimhood. But McIndoe was so upbeat. His ethos was that these terrible injuries did not mean that their lives were over.”

Bridget Warner, a nurse in on the ward at the time, also remembers McIndoe’s stout dedication,

“He worked so hard, he’d be on his feet in the operating theatre 12, sometimes 16, hours a day,” she said

“What I remember is that those boys loved us. They reckon we saved their lives. That’s good enough for me.”

Today, plastic surgery continues to reinstate the confidence of those affected by serious injury. On Armed Forces Day, Hamilton Fraser would like to acknowledge the work of Sir Archibald McIndoe; not just for his contribution to the incredible advancements in today’s cosmetic surgery, but for his understanding that rebuilding his patients’ physical appearance was only just the start of yet another battle leading to confidence and social acceptance.

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