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Tuesday, 13 November, 2001, 11:29 GMT
War heroes who became guinea pigs
Jack Toper (second left) and the Guinea Pig Club
The Guinea Pig Club is going strong after 60 years
Hundreds of World War II airmen who suffered horrendous burns became guinea pigs for a pioneer of plastic surgery, as BBC News Online's Dominic Bailey discovered.

Helping a fellow airman out of a crashed Wellington bomber delayed Jack Toper long enough to catch the full force of exploding oxygen tanks.

The first guinea pig burns patients were Battle of Britain pilots
Badly burned on his face and hands, the 21-year-old was selected to receive treatment at the hands of one of the most innovative surgeons of the 20th century.

Mr Toper joined hundreds of other World War II airmen with burns injuries who would become the guinea pigs of plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe.

In those days there was no counselling. We just got through without it

Jack Toper
Burns and reconstructive surgery was in its infancy when the first pilots began to return from the Battle of Britain aerial war in 1940 with horrific injuries.

The patients recognised their treatment was experimental and formed The Guinea Pig Club - originally intended to be a drinking club that would disband after the war.

Members were airmen who had undergone at least two operations at the hands of Mr McIndoe's team at Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital in East Grinstead, East Sussex during the war years.

Morale boost

The years of treatment to rebuild their burned faces, fingers and limbs and the camaraderie they shared, meant the club and many friendships are still going strong 60 years later.

"I can't sing the praises enough for McIndoe. Not only was he a great surgeon, he was also a great psychologist," said Mr Toper, now 79 and editor of the Guinea Pig Club's magazine.

Jack Toper
Burns transformed airmen's appearance and lives
The surgeon, who was later knighted, discovered that burns injuries of pilots who had crashed into the Channel healed quicker - leading his team to use saline baths.

But the mental attitude of the young men, horrifically disfigured and dismembered by war, was also key to McIndoe's treatment.

He ensured patients had "crates of beer under their beds" and were allowed to wear their uniforms instead of hospital clothes.

Mr McIndoe also supposedly picked nurses according to their good looks as well as their skills.

Jack Toper
Jack Toper: Life began a new phase
Mr Toper said: "He had a load of disfigured men whose morale needed boosting - what better way than having good looking nurses?"

McIndoe wanted to give the men confidence to face the outside world and lead "normal" lives.

Despite their disfigurement, patients were encouraged to leave the confines of the hospital and go into East Grinstead to get used to people's reactions.

Many went on to marry local girls or the hospital nurses.

New faces

Mr Toper, a flight sergeant in 166 Squadron, suffered facial injuries and lost two of his fingers as a result of the burns he suffered when his aircraft was shot down returning from a bombing raid over Germany in 1943.

Mr McIndoe rebuilt his nose, eyelids, chin and mouth using skin grafts.

But his 26 operations were not always successful.

One attempt to fix his chin with plasma instead of stitches failed when the ward was infected with streptococcus and his chin "fell off".

Archibald McIndoe (far right) and Guinea Pigs
Archibald McIndoe (right) was knighted for his work
Mr Toper said the camaraderie among the injured airmen of all ranks and nationalities was the best medicine.

He said: "We all endured the same hardships, the hardship of flying operations together, of being burned together," he said.

Black humour

"But there was no feeling sorry for each other and in those days there was no counselling. We just got through without it.

"A lot of us realised we were grateful to be alive."

Hideous injuries needed radical and sometimes bizarre methods
Of the 649 original members of the Guinea Pig Club from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Czech Republic, there are now 155, many of whom meet up for annual reunions in London and East Grinstead or for the Remembrance Day parade at the Cenotaph.

Some Guinea Pigs also use their experience of war, injury, surgery and rehabilitation to help others in similar situations today.

Many veterans took Falklands burns victims under their wings.

Mr Toper said: "We know all about burns.

"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."

See also:

29 Jun 01 | Health
New hope for burns victims
23 May 01 | Wales
Battle of Britain foes reunited
12 Nov 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Remembrance Day properly understood
11 Nov 00 | UK
Britain marks Armistice Day
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