Meeting The Guinea Pig Club

Anyone with even a passing interest in the history of motorsport will be aware of the huge improvements in safety over the last three decades. A sport where deaths each weekend were considered an acceptable risk has developed into one of the safest action sports in comparison with others. Fire is probably the greatest fear of any racing driver. Broken limbs can heal, the HANS device saves drivers from spinal and brain injury as never before, but the thought of being trapped in wreckage while it is burning is something that racing drivers prefer to push to the back of the mind when competing.

What happens when the unthinkable occurs and how the treatment of this type of injury was pioneered was something we experienced first hand this week. The Yorkshire Air Museum in the UK were hosting a small event for pioneer members of the Guinea Pig Club in collaboration with the RAF Benevolent Fund. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Guinea Pig Club. In World War Two, the advent of high performance fighters and bombers, plus the high octane aviation fuels, gave rise to a series of grim and life changing burns injuries, predominantly to aircrew. The pioneering work of surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe created an environment and treatment that meant that these men were able to gradually recuperate, both physically and mentally. With time on their hands as they healed, the social club was named in typically dark military humour.

Their recollections of that time in their lives and how they paved they way for not only pioneering treatments but also gaining public acceptance of the facial disfigurements were truly inspirational to hear. Jack Perry was just 19 years old when his Halifax Bomber crashed shortly after take off from RAF Topcliffe in North Yorkshire on 31 August 1944. You can read a full account of that fateful day on the RAF Benevolent Fund website.

Jack Perry was 19 years old when his Halifax bomber exploded on takeoff
Jack Perry was 19 years old when his Halifax bomber exploded on takeoff

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Jack suffered severe burns to his hands, face, and ears, undergoing 31 operations over four and a half years and earning him membership in the Guinea Pig Club. The Club, which celebrated its 75th anniversary on 20 July, was formed by a group of burned Allied airmen, the surgical ‘guinea pigs’ of pioneering plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe. After Jack’s years of treatment in hospital, he married his wife, Mary, age 89, and had a successful career as a draughtsman. He credits much of his success in life to the treatment of Sir Archibald and the support of the Guinea Pig Club.

Also present was Peter Procter who’s injuries and club membership come not from military action, but motorsport. In the 1960’s Peter was a regular competitor in racing, driving a variety of saloons, single seaters and GT racing cars as well as being a former British cycling champion. Racing a Ford Anglia and Goodwood in 1966, he was hit from behind when caught up in another competitor’s accident. The Anglia somersaulted several times, the fuel tank ruptured and marshals struggled to rescue him from the ensuing fire. He suffered 3rd degree burns to 65% of his skin.

Peter Procter on board the Museum's Halifax with engineer Phil Kemp
Peter Procter on board the Museum’s Hallfax with engineer Phil Kemp

“It was a pretty dark time of my life. Both mentally and physically, it was extremely difficult, but I was fortunate to be located on the same ward as Guinea Pig Club members. Their positive outlook and comradeship were inspirational to me and changed my outlook on the future. They decided that I should become a Guinea Pig Club member and our friendship has lasted through the years, we’re still firm friends to this day. It’s thanks to their encouragement that I’m here talking about it.”

Peter enjoyed taking the time to explore the Museum’s Halifax bomber, one of only two complete airframes in existence, with engineer Phil Kemp. As a small child, Peter used to watch RAF raids departing for operations in Europe from his home in Yorkshire, so it was quite an experience for him to be able to climb inside one of the

In modern motorsport, fire protection standards have never been higher. But in military operations, the risk of this life changing injury still exists, more often with ground based troops. The Guinea Pig Club pioneers changed not just medical treatment, but also the public perception of their all too visible injuries. They moved from being hidden away and never talked about to integrating into society and educating the public that while their faces may have changed, they were still strong, positive people inside.

Meeting these men who have moved on from those injuries to enjoy full and active lives was inspirational. Medical science and patients recovering from burns injuries today have much to thank them for. The name Guinea Pig Club may sound chilling to some, but it is a badge they wear with great pride. You can support the RAF Benevolent Fund through this link.

The Yorkshire Air Museum is the largest independent air museum in the UK and is the home to the Allied Air Forces Memorial. They aim to commemorate the memories of those who served across air forces in conflict and educate visitors on the history of aviation, particularly with regard to conflict. More information on their opening hours can be found here.

The largest independent air museum in the UK, Yorkshire Air Museum's control tower
The largest independent air museum in the UK, Yorkshire Air Museum’s control tower

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Author: Neill Watson

If you love the sound of the Cosworth V8 as much as the V12 Merlin, the smell of Jet A1 as much as Castrol R and admire the late Ray Hanna as much as Sir Stirling, you’ll find you’re both on the same page. Neill's love of art deco buildings means that his ideal home would be a brilliant white, 1930′s control tower in Southern France, with crisply mown grass, biplane parked on the driveway and a Ferrari 288GTO in the garage. This is something that those around him tolerate, though it does concern them from time to time.

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