THE SECOND WORLD WAR (1939-1945)

FOCUS ON… THE GUINEA PIG CLUB

RCAF airwomen visit men receiving plastic surgery treatment in East Grinstead (left to right): LAW C. Lavallee; AC1 W.J. Cox of the RAF; R.J. Allen of the merchant Navy and Cpl Eileen Hassett.

Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) medical officers, nursing sisters and medical assistants became experts in trauma care during the Second World War.

In East Grinstead, Sussex, RCAF medical staff, working with medical staff of other nations, pioneered plastic surgery techniques, supported by psychotherapy methods (including lashings of beer!), to treat severely burned patients.

Many of these were aircrew who had been shot down in flames; because the treatment of burn victims was very primitive at the time, most of them would ordinarily have died or survived with gruesome disfigurement.

The medical team was led by New Zealand plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe; he was later joined by one of Canada’s first plastic surgeons: Dr. Ross Tilley. He was a member of the RCAF, and was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.

The wounded men became famous as the “Guinea Pig Club”. Of the 649 patients treated, more than a quarter of them were Canadian.

By late 2012, fewer than 25 were still alive. But their legacy changed plastic surgery techniques forever, and the lives of millions of people since.

DID YOU KNOW…

Allied airmen survived imprisonment in Buchenwald, a notorious Nazi concentration camp…because of the enemy!

Members of the Luftwaffe discovered there were Allied airmen in the death camp and, in October 1944, ensured they were transferred to Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp.

“It’s a miracle to think that somehow the German air force, who was our enemy in combat, but comrades in arms, found out that there [were] Allied airmen in Buchenwald, and they saved our lives,” Edward Carter-Edwards, one of the 26 RCAF airmen held in the camp, told The Memory Project.

Of the 168 airmen imprisoned at Buchenwald, only two died — of illness.