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Last Updated: Friday, 23 September 2005, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Burns 'guinea pigs' reunite again
Members of the Guinea Pig Club around a piano
Sir Archibald McIndoe (sitting, in the white coat) and the Guinea Pig Club
World War II airmen who underwent pioneering burns surgery are having what could be their final reunion.

The Guinea Pig Club was a drinking group set up by the veterans during their treatment at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, West Sussex.

They had all undergone at least two operations for horrendous burns they suffered during combat.

Only 121 of the guinea pigs remain alive and only a third of those are still able to attend Friday's reunion.

The Guinea Pig Club was established in 1941 and the intention was for it to only run until the end of the war.

But the men have maintained contact to ensure that all members, or their widows, are looked after and kept financially secure.

'Innovative work'

Their annual reunions will either end this year to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII, or in 2006 when it will be 65 years since the formation of the club.

A spokeswoman said the members would vote on Saturday about when to disband it.

Jack Toper
Jack Toper had a pedicle skin graft from his arm to his nose

The pioneering plastic surgery at the Queen Victoria Hospital (QVH) was the work of Sir Archibald McIndoe.

The hospital's current deputy medical director, Keith Cullen, said: "The most innovative work... was his treatment of the psychological impact of severe burns."

Wireless operator Jack Toper, aged in his 80s and from Woodford Green in Essex, said that would include the guinea pigs being taken out to the pub by the "prettiest nurses".

Mr Toper was treated at the QVH from 1943 to 1946 after suffering facial burns when his aircraft was shot down and an oxygen cylinder exploded.

"He [Sir Archibald] was an amazing character who realised that as young men, with adolescence not far behind us, we would be very concerned about our looks," said Mr Toper.

The QVH now provides specialist treatment at the McIndoe Burns Centre.


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