Guinea Pig Club for burned soldiers helped shape plastic surgery in Canada

The late Stanley Given, a Second World War flyer from Southwestern Ontario and survivor of the...

The late Stanley Given, a Second World War flyer from Southwestern Ontario and survivor of the so-called Guinea Pig Hospital in England where plastic surgery -- performed on badly burned Allied airmen -- was pioneered. (Handout)

Jonathan Sher, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:29 PM ET

LONDON, Ont. — He slipped away in his 90th year wearing his third face.

Stanley Given was part of a fraternity of brothers who survived the trauma of war not once, but twice -- first in the night skies above Europe, and later at the hands of surgeons trying to mend burns that until then meant death or disfigurement.

The Guinea Pig Club -- that’s what they called the 649 men who found friendship and healing at the burn unit of Queen Victoria’s Hospital in East Grinstead, in West Sussex in England.

With Given’s death last month at 89, fewer than 25 survive. But their legacy lives on in the hands and even hearts of plastic surgeons in Canada and around the world.

That legacy was explained this year in the University of Alberta Health Sciences Journal by a third-year medical student named Kevin Mowbrey.

In planes designed for performance, not safety, Second World War airmen sat above gas tanks: 22,000 airmen burned to death, and 4,500 were recovered from crashes with most sustaining burns to their hands and face, an unprecedented scale, Mowbrey wrote.

Until innovations made at Queen Victoria’s Hospital, surgeons had used tannic acid on burns -- the same thing used by tanners to stiffen hides made into leather. The acid left hands too stiff to move.

Another chemical had been used for facial burns, one that left faces rigid and eyelids so taut patient often suffered corneal scratches from being unable to blink.

Even when patients survived surgeries, they were at risk of infections because they hadn’t been isolated from other hospital patients.

Into that mire of misery came plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe, who created a place of healing -- he was joined later by one of Canada’s first plastic surgeons, Dr. Albert Tilley.

“All of our surgical techniques today have benefited,” Mowbrey told QMI Agency.

Advances weren’t limited to operating rooms. McIndoe and Tilley were also pioneers in empowering patients -- Tilley always returned to the hospital late at night to check on men he’d seen during the day.

“(Tilley) gave his patients everything he had,” Mowbrey said.

The surgeons encouraged their men to enjoy life as they underwent what was on average 25 surgeries each -- there were reportedly barrels of beer in wards.

More than one-quarter of the patients were Canadian, among them Given, one of four brothers from Ailsa Craig, outside London, Ont., who went on to become Second World War airmen. A fifth enlisted but was hurt in training.

“Mother must have phoned (Prime Minister) Mackenzie King to say five is enough,” wrote Given in notes shared with QMI by his family.

Given flew 33 missions as a navigator in Halifax bombers, but by the end he was badly burned, ending up in Queen Victoria’s Hospital in 1944.

Surgeons in England proved so successful many people didn’t realize Given had plastic surgery and he returned to Canada, become a metallurgical engineer and worked 36 years for Alcan.

But he’d been warned that if he lived long enough, he’d get skin cancer and by his late-1970s, cancer came, and a new generation of plastic surgeons replaced his entire face.

He whispered not a word of complaint about the second surgery, nor did it dull his love of life, his daughter Margaret Given said from her Vancouver home down the road from where her father lived.

“He just copes with everything,” she said. “I don’t know how he tolerated all that.”

Perhaps it was his upbringing outside of London -- as the youngest of eight brothers the hand-me downs were quite worn by the time he got them, his daughter said.

Maybe it was enduring those missions in Europe -- his pride in what he had done is evident in a letter he wrote to a friend after seeing criticism of night time bombings of German cities such as Dresden.

They were all military targets he said and the attacks were necessary to defeat the Nazis.

“Sometimes I feel a bit embarrassed speaking about Bomber Command days with all the revisionist, cowardly people in our midst ... I don’t have any trouble sleeping at night.”

Maybe too, it was his time in the company of the Guinea Pig Club, which had regular reunions.

After all, after his second round of plastic surgery later in life, Given told his daughter, “It makes me appreciate just having a face ... I’m just grateful to be alive.”

jonathan.sher@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @JSHERatLFPress


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