Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Who Was Sir Archibald McIndoe? 75th Anniversary of The Guinea Pig Club

Archibald Mcindoe was born in May 1900 and raised in Dunedin, New Zealand. He had two brothers and a sister. His mother, Mabel was a renowned artist and his father, John owned a printing business. As a young boy, he seemed to have a thirst for adventure, and he excelled at everything, both sports and academics. He pushed himself to go the extra mile and was undoubtedly encouraged and guided by his doting mother. When his father suddenly passed away in 1915, Archie's mother told him that he could be whatever he wanted to be in later life, but for the time being, he had to knuckle down and study at school.
Dental students at Otago University, 1920s
Archie did just that and went on to university to study medicine. In March 1919, he attended the Medical School of Otago University, where once again, he excelled and in 1923 he graduated. In his final year there, Archie won the junior medicine prize and the senior clinical surgery medal. In 1924, he took up his post as house surgeon at Waikato Hospital in Hamilton, New Zealand. But his longing for more had never ceased and this time, he had his sights set on England. He thought it was the best place to be to gain the experience he needed if he was to become a great surgeon. While Archie looked for a way to get to England, destiny seemed to intervene.
Young Archibald McIndoe Picture courtesy of creative commons.
He met Adonia Aitken, an eighteen-year-old beauty who was a brilliant pianist and Archie was immediately smitten. At around the same time, the Mayo brothers, founders of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, paid a visit to the Otago Medical School and were suitably impressed. From their visit, a fellowship was established, and it was Archie who was to be the first recipient. Before he left for America, he married Adonia, who was to remain behind in New Zealand for the time being.

Archie joined the Mayo Clinic in 1925. He studied pathology and surgery and eventually, Adonia was able to join him there. Their first daughter was born in the USA. In 1927, Archie gained his degree in Pathology from the University of Minnesota. Archie was also awarded the William White Travelling Fellowship and decided to take a trip to England. He'd been given letters of introduction to some of the most famous surgeons, but his visits turned out to be rather disappointing as he found the surgeons to be both condescending and unwelcoming. He complained that they treated him 'like a colonial.' He returned to the Mayo Clinic and resumed his position as an assistant surgeon.

One day, Archie received an out of town call from a doctor, who claimed to have a patient, a Mr Mancini, who required abdominal surgery. It was to be done privately and so Archie agreed to see him. Accompanying the patient, were three men in suits. Archie did the surgery some days later and extracted a metal fragment from the man's stomach. Outside, in the hospital car park, several Cadillacs waited, and one member of staff reported that one of the cars was bulletproof. Archie wondered why such a man had such a large entourage. A couple of days later, the Cadillacs returned, along with a black private ambulance. Mr Mancini was taken away, despite Archie's protests. One of the entourage approached Archie and thanked him for helping his 'kid brother.' He handed over an envelope which contained one thousand dollars and it was not until hours later that Archie realised he had just saved the life of Al Capone's brother.
Al Capone Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
It was a visitor from England that was to shake these new foundations which Archie had firmly planted in America. When Lord Moynihan visited the Mayo Clinic, he was most impressed by Archie's performance as a surgeon, and he questioned why he stayed here, telling him bluntly that England was the place for such talent. He explained how a new hospital was in the planning, and there would be a position for Archie there in London. For many reasons, Archie jumped at the chance, although Adonia was not happy. She had settled in well and had a comfortable life, but Archie refused to back down. He put their furniture up for sale, paid his debts and they set sail for England in late 1931.

When they sailed into the port of Liverpool, it was a dreary, damp day. Once settled in London, Archie eventually secured a meeting with Lord Moynihan at his Harley Street practice. The news was not good. The hospital was not yet built, and Moynihan informed him that until he had the fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS), he would not be able to practice. It seemed that Archie may have jumped the gun.
Lord Moynihan
Afterwards, as Archie headed back through the dreary, London streets to his lodgings, seething, he pondered his next move. He realised he would have to begin studying for the fellowship and gain the professional qualification if he was to remain in England. But that was going to take time and luckily for Archie, there was always a way. An appropriately timed letter from his mother revealed he had a cousin in London, Harold Delf Gillies, a surgeon, and it was then Archie saw the light once more.

It was during this time he also noted a number of dishevelled, disabled and disfigured men begging and selling wares on the streets. It didn't take much to realise they were veterans of the last war and Archie was shocked to find such heroic men reduced to such a plight. This left an impressionable scar, one etched into his soul so deeply he would never forget. It didn't seem right that a government could force men to fight in a war, only to abandon them afterwards when they needed help.

Some weeks later, he managed to arrange a meeting with Gillies at his office. Harold Gillies was most welcoming and willing to offer his newly found relative a helping hand. And while Gillies took Archie under his wing, he also pointed him in the direction of a job as a lecturer in general surgery, and he supplied the necessary references. So, Archie now had employment while he studied for the FRCS and Gillies invited him to study with him also, forging the beginning of Archie's career as a plastic surgeon.

Archie enjoyed the fact that Gillies had a wicked sense of humor, but what was even more surprising was that Gillies believed humour was a vital part of a patient's recovery. Of course, he had learned his own trade from the Great War, fixing the shattered faces of men and he enjoyed showing the artwork of those faces to his 'country cousin.' Gillies was nothing like the surgeons he'd met during his previous trip to England, and Archie no doubt felt he had found a kindred spirit.

Meanwhile, change was afoot in Germany, and the vibrations were beginning to be felt around the world. Whispers of war drifted in but it was still early days. Hopefully it would come to nothing and all would be well.